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Tasteful Tradition: Guillermo’s

by James Verde
273 Egg Harbor Road, Sewell
(856) 256-0004
3 forks Like the precise deployment of Starbucks across the country, where each latte, each egg white flatbread sandwich is made exactly the same, so many of South Jersey’s over-populous Italian restaurants appear almost absurdly alike. These places often appear to share the same interior decorator (one with an affinity for faded carpets, drop ceilings, faux rustic details and pastoral artwork), and the same chef, cooking a roster of red-gravy recipes you can recite before even opening the menu. Bill and Mindy Leahy’s Washington Township restaurant, Guillermo’s, would seem, at first glance, to fall into this category. The neat, attractive cottage off Egg Harbor Road is decorated like your grandmother’s living room. But the food, cooked by Bill, is better than anticipated, and the menu (so lengthy it should come with its own Dewey Decimal number) includes some dishes you won’t find in the region’s generic ravioli factories. The calamari spinachi illustrates that point. It’s a lighter, brighter squid starter than the fried calamari done everywhere else. For good measure, Guillermo’s serves that latter crowd-pleaser, too, but the spinachi is the real star, featuring ivory rings sauteed with garlicky wilted greens and vivid crushed marinara. Serving seafood with cheese is sacrilege in some Italian households, but Guillermo’s flouts that law to great effect by topping the squid with a mozzarella web. They also deserve credit for cooking the calamari correctly. Squid’s a game of minutes: perfect after two, rubber bands after four, 60 until you can expect them to get tender again. Guillermo’s gets theirs in the sweet spot, tender with just the right amount of residual chew. Some of us do like the tentacles, though. And some of us do like water, refills of which were forgotten by the fresh-faced wait staff. At one point in my meal, out of clean cutlery, I also had to swipe a set from the empty table next to me. What they lack in attentiveness, they make up for in friendliness. They’re an efficient bunch with orders, too, regulating the flow of food—and lord, is it a lot of food—so as to not overwhelm the diners. Comforting cups of soulful chicken-rice soup and balsamic-slicked greens salads came with the entrees, a nice surprise since I didn’t see that mentioned anywhere on the menu. Had I known, I’d have passed up on the broccoli rabe with sausage, or appetizer portion of penne carbonara I’d also ordered. But which? Surely not the droopy wands of rabe, their woody stems forced into tender submission. Glossed with garlic-scented olive oil, the greens delivered that enchanting balance of sweet and bitter, a fantastic foil for sweet sausage and creamy cannellini beans. I couldn’t give that up—even if the addition of lemon zest and shaved Pecorino would have highlighted all the starter’s best assets. But I couldn’t sacrifice the carbonara either. At eye level, the bowl was a thicket of stalagmites, jagged penne edges spearing crunchy bits of pancetta. Raw egg gives this Roman classic its richness and sheen; Guillermo’s tossed it through the pasta with black pepper and grated cheese, resulting in a fluid sauce that lightly coated, rather than spackled, the penne. I blame these appetizers for making my bottle of Mendoza Cab (admittedly not the most obvious choice for this BYOB) disappear before entrees. I bet it would have paired well with the shrimp parmigiana, an unexpected protein switcheroo on the everyday chicken and veal. Butterflied, breaded and fried, the crustaceans brought that same toasty crunch that makes parm so tasty and comforting. Marinara. Mozzarella. What’s not to like? Unfortunately, the other entree I tried, chicken Harrington—just sounds out of place, doesn’t it?—disappointed. When I read, “sauteed chicken breast, scallops and fresh asparagus in a light garlic cream sauce served with cappellini,” I expect a whole chicken breast, beautifully cooked and posed over pasta. Chunks of white meat arrived instead—sauteed, maybe, but not enough to get any color on the breast. There was more angel hair than chicken, too, such a lopsided ratio that this dish should probably be listed under “pasta.” The sauce was bleak, bland and marked by a few asparagus spears so shriveled they looked more like wilted scallions. But what do I know? The critics that matter are the loyal customer base that has kept Guillermo’s original location in business since 1993, a stat that makes it the self-proclaimed “longest-running family-owned-and-operated restaurant in Washington Township.” I’m just passing through, though that doesn’t mean I won’t be back. E-mail us Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 7, Issue 7 (October, 2010).
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