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That’s Amore

by Brian Freedman; Photo by Douglas Bovitt
Love at First Bite: That’s Amore
690 Haddon Ave.
(856) 869-5683

On the menu at That’s Amore, the charming BYOB in Collingswood, the signature “Sunday Gravy” is described as “A tradition in Italian households ... served early afternoon, after Sunday church.” Now, I’m not Italian, nor Catholic, but this majestic bowl of meat and pasta is almost enough to make me rethink my Sunday afternoon plans, if that’s what it takes to tuck into something like this more often.

Fortunately, it’s a Sunday dish in name only, available whenever the restaurant is open for dinner. Good thing, too: Limiting such a treat to a once-a-week occasion would be a shame. Penne is served in a sauce so soulful it seems to have been stirred and tended to by the spirit of James Brown, and an assortment of meat well-prepared enough to guarantee you’ll overeat before the check and coffee arrive. And while the on-the-bone pork had taken on the feel of silk, and the sausage the density and satisfaction of a great collection of live Sinatra songs, it was the meatballs that demanded the most attention. Pliant, fluffy and perfectly seasoned, these were easily the best I’ve tasted in the past year.

Of course, with a high note like that gravy, it’s inevitable that other dishes will pale, even just a bit, in comparison. Chicken piccata, for example, just couldn’t match it in the heart department. Indeed, for all the layering of the gravy’s flavors, the almost roasted quality the canned Jersey tomatoes had taken on, the lemon, white wine, butter and capers moistening the chicken breast fell relatively flat. Fortunately, the side of fresh linguine played its role better, that same sauce popping against the blank canvas of the toothsome pasta much more clearly than it did with the crunchless breading of the chicken.

A soggy crust also hindered the arancini—the famous fried risotto balls that have seen such a comeback on local menus in recent years. And while the flavor was great—a delicate acid hit from the tomatoes and a gorgeous anchoring by the oozing mozzarella in the center—the exterior, which should have been crispy against the teeth, was mushy.

The squid fared better, and was stupendously portioned to boot, in the calamari Caesar salad. It arrived on an oblong plate approximately the length of a football field, all tangled up in itself and crowned with vinegar-kissed peppers, spread out on top of snappy romaine. If only the garlicky, creamy Caesar dressing had been tossed with greens instead of having been drizzled on it, each bite would have screamed with the flavor.

No matter, whenever I happened to have taken a mouthful of underdressed salad, I simply chased it with a bite of garlic loaf, which was exactly as rich and perfumed as you always hope it’ll be, though rarely is, at so many other restaurants.

By the end of a recent visit, I had a veritable Vesuvius of leftovers piled up at an adjacent table—lunches for the next two days, it turned out. I wanted, after all, to save room for dessert, which turned out to be a smart strategy. Pumpkin cannoli cream was both exactly what it sounds like and so very much more. Somehow, executive chef and owner Alfredo Fischioni had coaxed out the more floral aspect of the gourd, which in turn highlighted the earthier notes of the ricotta. Brilliant. And the Krispy Kreme bread pudding is worth tossing your post-holiday-season diet out the window for the night.

All of this is served in a space both homey and bright, the occasionally baroque design touches countered by swirling trees painted on the walls with what look like gumballs hovering around them. Service is friendly and familiar and very well choreographed—just the right feel for a place like this.

You’ll notice, as you walk in, that the front door is flanked by an oversized fork and spoon. It’s more than a decor decision; it’s an indication of how much you’ll likely be eating here over the course of your meal. That’s truth in advertising. That’s amore.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 11 (February, 2012).
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