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Border Crossings II: Dining at Il Gattopardo & Barbuzzo

April 18, 2011

By Pat Tanner

Goodness knows I relentlessly extol the virtues of New Jersey restaurants and chefs to anyone who will listen – in print, in person, over the airways. But I also dine regularly in the megalopolises to our east and west, and the equally wonderful Italian meals described below – one as old school as it gets; the other the height of fashion – give me a reason to tout our state for something often used to disparage it: being a mere “crossroads.” To me, we get the glories of New York and Philadelphia without the hassles of living in a big city.

Il Gattopardo, NYC. Set in a pretty townhouse on 54th Street, this restaurant whose name pays homage to the 1963 film version of The Leopard is an elegant reminder that authentic Neapolitan and Southern Italian food, manners, and culture are a far cry from their Americanized red-sauce counterparts. Graciousness abounds, in the correct but warm service and in the attractive, understated décor. (Sit out on the glass-enclosed garden terrace for full effect). The food is refined, and the menu structure hews to the traditional, with everything including vegetables a la carte. A starter of beef and veal meatballs wrapped in Savoy cabbage leaves with thyme sauce is as delicious as it is unexpected. Also unexpected: a special of three crispy-coated round lentil cakes – cousins to arancini – each on a dab of basil-yogurt sauce, and each one moist yet light in texture. Another special, homemade pappardelle with a creamy rabbit sauce, is a showstopper, but no more so than slices of wild sea bass, poached then expertly filleted and set over salad greens. Simplicity at its best. I can think of no better way to end such as meal than how I did: with moist Neapolitan-style cheese cake and perfectly brewed espresso.

Barbuzzo, Philadelphia. This winning newcomer, like Il Gattopardo, serves delicious Italian fare in charming quarters. Yet Barbuzzo could hardly be more different. It is proudly, trendily farm-to-table Italian, which is reinforced by the blackboard listing the farms the ingredients come from, and by interior fittings that evoke a modern take on a rustic farmhouse. The thoughtful, thoroughly contemporary approach the kitchen takes with those ingredients is evident in everything from custom cocktails (try the French Farmer, with St. Germain), to the rigatoni with “Sunday supper” pork ragu – which includes fillips of burrata, basil, and escarole – and to crazy-shaped strozzapreti pasta tossed with wood-roasted hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, wild arugula, ricotta, and pesto made from walnuts and preserved lemon. Be sure to save room for the genius signature dessert: a jam jar of layers of dark chocolate and salted caramel budino (pudding).

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