MAYS LANDING - The sign outside JoAnn's II Ristorante & Pizzaria in Mays Landing proudly proclaims it serves "genuine Italian cuisine".
Foodies are constantly in conversation about ethnic foods, what is authentic and what is not. If there is a slight difference between the two words it might be this; authentic cuisine is made the same way as the original, while genuine food is made and experienced honestly. The cuisine at JoAnn's is based on good, honest cooking, and that's probably why it tastes so good, authentic or not.
The basket of garlic bread served with each meal was crispy, tasty, and red.
The soup of the day was escarole, a bitter green, in plenty of chicken flavored broth with ditalini pasta and specks of black pepper in every spoonful. Just a few good ingredients is what Italian cooking is really about.
On the menu, the Italian long hot peppers ($3.95) read like a cold appetizer with slices of cold mozzarella. Instead, it was a serving of warm peppers with mozzarella cheese melted over the top. I liked the way the rich cheese took the edge off the spiciness of the peppers, something usually overcome with large amounts of bread.
Of course, the point of eating such hot peppers is the heat and spice, not the pain. Enjoying chili peppers is something you either get or you don't.
The menu that said the ricotta cheese gnocchi ($11.95) were homemade. But it was obvious as soon as the plate arrived they also are handmade. Our server explained her mother made them by pressing lumps of dough across the holes on a box grater with her fingers. That makes them curl up and helps carry the sauce. Each one was slightly different in size and shape, like so many snowflakes, just firm enough and perfectly light. Surprisingly, the gnocchi were not finished in the sauce, a technique commonly used in Italy. Here the gnocchi were plated first then sauced over the top. But as in Italy, it was just enough sauce to coat rather than the Italo-American style of puddles of sauce on the plate. The Marinara sauce was long cooked but still bright red and tasted like fresh tomatoes.
Chicken Marsala ($14.95) was composed of several pieces of boneless chicken breast sauteed in butter, lots of sliced mushrooms, and finished with Marsala wine. The pasta on the plate was homemade and had the texture that store-bought pasta simply can't match.
A genuine, homemade Sicilian cannoli ($2.95) had a crisp shell, sweetened ricotta and chocolate chips.
The server made sure that everything was just right; answering questions, checking back, refilling iced tea, replacing silver ware, offering more bread. She knew the gnocchi were good before she asked. After all, her mother made them. And that may be the best part about eating at JoAnn's II: being treated like members of the family - ones who don't have to clean up after the meal.
The dining room felt like the tables were outside on a sunny terrace somewhere under an overhang supported by wooden vine covered columns. Blue tablecloths were just a shade darker than the blue walls, and some imagined Italian skies. Tiled floors, wooden chairs, burgundy leather tufted banquettes, and oil paintings of gondolas, villages, and a still life all added to the charm of the room.
Authentic? Who knows. Genuine? JoAnn's II is the definition of genuine.
C.C. Hoyt is the pseudonym of a southern New Jersey food writer. Write to Hoyt c/o Food Editor Felicia Compian at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ratings guide: 4 stars, extraordinary; 3 stars, excellent; 2 stars, good; 1 star, fair; 0 stars, poor.