Dispatch from NJ: Say Good Morning to the Night
I listened to the song Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters a bunch of times over the weekend. The 1972 Elton John classic was inspired by New York City, but the line that always gets me is, “I thank the Lord for the people I have found.” I love that it’s not flowery, just plainly said, but expresses the masses of people we encounter in our lives, and how fortunate we are for the standouts who become friends, lovers, respected colleagues, or fun acquaintances. And Lord, am I thankful for the ones I’ve found!
One of those I’m most thankful for is Jill, whom I met as a co-worker in 2005, but who has become one of my very best friends. We first ate at the restaurant I’m reviewing this week back in 2007, during an uproariously fun long weekend that also included a glorious visit to Atlantic City’s Borgata Resort. When Jill brought me that first time to Bruno’s Restaurant and Pizzeria, tucked away in a quiet neighborhood of Haddonfield, NJ, I ate so much that I justified it to her with the following disclaimer, “Well, I am eating for six.” I may not actually have been pregnant with sextuplets at the time, but the food there was so good, that I certainly ate enough to nourish at least six gestating fetuses.
New Jersey has some freaky liquor laws, and so you have to bring your own hooch to the great spots in the Collingswood and Haddonfield area. Bruno’s has mitigated this bothersome decree by opening a liquor store right next to their pizzeria and restaurant. Ingenious! Inside the restaurant portion of Bruno’s little strip mall is a cozy, old school Italian space, and both times I’ve been there, the joint has been jumping, filled to the brim with families and couple gorging on hearty Italian fare. You will start your meal with a basket of house made crescent rolls, dense and chewy with a crunchy exterior, and pizza bread, which is moist and savory, with the tomato sauce and herbs baked right in. Alongside the basket of carby goodness, the motherload: spicy, hot, fried peppers. I’m assuming theses are cherry peppers, as they pack a good wallop of heat, and that they’re sautéed in garlic and EVOO, although the sauce on them is a bit saucier than that concoction would produce, so there could very well be a tomato product at play. In any event, I have never been served these in any other Italian restaurant, but I love them, and despite the shocking heat level they pack, they make that bread basket irresistible.
Since together, Jill and I could conceivably eat enough for 12 people, we went ahead and ordered an appetizer platter. I’m not going to lie to you, Big Hungry friends, it was the size of Cleveland. We dug into the mammoth clams casino first, which were one of its strongest residents: cheesy, crabby, bacony, luscious and bursting with savory, rich flavor. Major, major clams, man. The filling was nicely homogenous in texture, so every bite carried those strong flavors, without getting one mouthful of clam and another full of breadcrumbs and bacon. Very delicious. Our second favorite platter feature was the fried shrimp, which were also huge, breaded in a superfine, super crunchy breading. If you’ve been reading BHS for awhile, you know how my Mom loves fried shrimp, and the entire time we were eating these, we remarked how much Sue Pilon would have loved them. That’s a glowing report for a shrimp, I tell you. I didn’t try the mussels, as they are the one shellfish I do not enjoy, but Jill pronounced them merely OK, and lacking spice. Sadly, the eggplant parm finished dead, mushy last. I need my eggplant to be fried up crispy, which this was not. Considering the major eggplant phase I’m currently in, I was really disappointed in this under-seasoned mess.
It should not surprise you that after a pretty standard salad/soup course, our enormous entrees were really more than either of us could manage to eat. But we tasted everything so that we could make our testimony. I ordered the osso bucco special, which came with not only the de rigeur braised veal, but also shrimp, and was served on a gigantic bed of linguine. The veal was crazy tender, and the slabs of Portobello mushrooms were terrific, but the marsala sauce it was served in could have been better, more fortified with wine, for me. That’s not to say this wasn’t a good dish! Believe me, it was fantastic – but once you’ve had Oaks Inn’s marsala, it’s tough to accept another version. I should note, though, that Jill thought this was the most delicious sauce on the table. And that is why I like to blog with other people – see why I’m glad Jill’s not a Mona Lisa or a Mad Hatter?
Jill’s entrée was veal stuffed with crabmeat, with more beautiful, huge shrimp, bathed in a gorgeous pink sauce, redolent with cream and some kind of booze. Thank God for that liquor store next door! I felt like the veal could have been better seasoned, but the crabmeat was rich and fabulous, and that pink sauce was so good, it was dizzying in its perfectly seasoned, deep, slight sweetness.
She ordered her pasta on the side, so that we could try the red sauce, and I’m so glad, because it was fab. Again, the tomato sauce was deep, made with tomato paste, and very well seasoned. So good! I should add that all the pasta was perfectly cooked – al dente, natch.
One of the most descriptive testaments to how good Bruno’s is was overheard from the table next to us, when the waitress asked them if there was anything else she could get them. The woman answered, “Two more stomachs!” Amen, sister. We may not have been able to finish our meals or order dessert, but we thoroughly enjoyed the whole meal, despite the weak eggplant and mussels. The sauces at Bruno’s are clutch, the sign of a true master in the kitchen, and the service is friendly and fun. This is a family joint, and I hope you’ve found people you would want to bring to a place like this. We awarded Bruno’s a seven on the BHS scale, and I will be back, as long as we can Jill and Tommy to stay in NJ and not roam somewhere else in this big world.
I’ll be back later this week with an opportunity in Watertown, so be looking out for that. In the meantime, stay hungry, my friends, and I hope you know if it’s dark outside or light.. My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!