A Fine Line: Botto’s Italian Line
1411 Kings Highway
I had never been to Swedesboro’s Botto’s Italian Line until recently, but the name was all too familiar. Since the ’60s, the Botto name has been a bit of a South Jersey institution thanks to the countless grocery stores in the area that carry their homemade Italian sausage links. The restaurant that followed in 1998 became an extension of a familiar brand that many residents have come to associate with Italian comfort food.
On a Saturday night, we were ushered into the lounge/bar area, as opposed to Botto’s 175 seat-dining room. It was a bit cramped, with two-seater tables running down a narrow space normally occupied by bar stools and the occasional high-top table. The energy was high, as servers and staff wove through the aisles with trays of food and drinks, but our seats also gave us access to their full dinner menu and a lounge menu, with more sandwich and finger foods and an impressive list of specialty drinks. Cocktails like the pineapple upside-down cake and Patron mojito all featured top-shelf liquors blended with some unique liqueurs and fresh fruits.
I started with a plate of mini crab cakes from the dinner menu. The three golf-ball sized cakes—broiled and served with the restaurant’s spicy roasted pepper tartar sauce—were meaty with just the right amount of breading to still keep them soft on the inside and crisp on the outside. The crab cakes hit all the right notes, but the sauce was a big miss. The roasted pepper tartar sauce that was promised was replaced with a pink cream sauce that tasted more of ketchup and packaged relish than anything else.
But their legendary sausages, in our appetizer of sausage alla Botto, were even juicier and more flavorful than Botto’s packaged product I had bought at the store so many times before. The sliced sausages came swimming in a broth of white wine and garlic, and were served with chunks of tomato, mushrooms and sliced Italian long hots. It ate almost like a stew, with the broth absorbing all the flavors from the fresh vegetables and the saltiness from the sausage.
All entrées come with a choice of pasta fagioli or Italian wedding soup. The Italian wedding soup came with handmade meatballs and nice al dente pasta, but pasta fagioli was overcooked and flavorless, to a point where no amount of salt or pepper could help it. Despite some early hiccups, the entrées I sampled during my visit were consistent and overly satisfying. First, a bowl of lobster ravioli, stuffed with chunks of fresh claw and tail meat, were fresh and still had the salty and sweet taste of meaty lobster. The ravioli nestled in a pink sherry sauce, finished with mounds of lump crab meat, chunks of fresh garlic, tomato and several plump shrimp. Lobster ravioli can be found on Italian menus more and more, but in my experience, few places could compete with Botto’s interpretation.
There were plenty of classic hearty veal dishes (parmesan, marsala), but it was the Milanese that caught our attention. Filleted thin, breaded and fried crispy, the veal was juicy and enhanced with the addition of sautéed long hots and onions, not to mention stewed tomatoes that added a nice sweetness to the dish.
The dessert options were a nice diversion from the typical tiramisu and cannoli you’ll find in most Italian restaurants, with an impressive selection of seasonal and specialty desserts made in house. We opted for the chocolate truffle cake, alternating layers of chocolate cake and chocolate ganache, which looked particularly appealing among the selection on our waitress’ dessert tray. But in this case, looks were deceiving. The cake seemed stale and the truffle ganache was dry; the whole plate was screaming for something moist or at least freshly baked. On a cold fall night, I was definitely looking for something warm and cozy. But comfort food doesn’t have to be familiar, and it can still be creative. Botto’s doesn’t veer too far away from the traditional Italian menu items, but judging by the packed dining room that surrounded me, it’s a recipe that is working quite well.
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 9 December, 2013).
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