116 E. Kings Highway
In terms of the three most important factors contributing to a restaurant’s success—location, location and location—Da Soli seems as if it might be at a disadvantage. Even though its address is the increasingly popular Kings Highway in Haddonfield, it lacks a street-side presence, often so crucial to generating walk-in business. In fact, I walked right past the building where it’s found, wondering how I’d missed the place, until my wife figured things out.
But this doesn’t seem to have caused any problems: Between chef/owner Mark Berenato’s reputation and the food he’s sending out of his kitchen, Da Soli has been as busy as most restaurants wish they could be.
And it’s wholly justified. With a focus on carefully attuned preparations of many memorable dishes, Berenato and his team orchestrate an experience well beyond what you’d likely expect from a South Jersey BYO Italian. Berenato spent recent years manning the kitchen at Tre Famiglia, until personal reasons forced him to pack his knives and open his first restaurant. In fact, Da Soli loosely translates to “on our own,” and that it’s in such close proximity to his former employer has caused quite a stir in town. Nevertheless, Berenato isn’t dwelling on the past, only the here and now.
Pastas are a highlight, gorgeously pliant and rustic in the best sense. Gamberi fra diablo, rather than focusing exclusively on the spice aspect of the sauce, here boasts a gentle back-of-throat tingle that serves to highlight the sweetness of the generous lumps of crabmeat, not obscure it.
Cooking times were also carefully calibrated, and the shrimp, as a result, arrived addictively snappy and plump. Vongole alla guitara made use of a pasta that I wish more restaurants would add to their menus. Square-sided and boiled just to the edge of al dente, these miraculous strands had plenty of heft to stand up to the deeply buttery white wine sauce the delicate clams had been cooked in.
Salads also benefited from an attention to detail far more focused than they usually get. Eponymous insalata da Soli, an otherwise unsurprising tangle of grilled pears, roasted beets, goat cheese and candied walnuts, had been anointed in a maple-honey dressing that not only tied everything together, but that’s good enough on its own that, should Berenato decide to bottle and sell it separately, I’d imagine he could make a nice little side business out of it. Straccetti alla Romana, with its slices of beef draped throughout, hit on a gorgeously bright character with its lemony zip in the vinaigrette.
This is food of familiarity and joy, of the comforts of home as rendered by a chef who knows how to spark something special in his cooking. And it’s served in a space as cozy and friendly as it deserves. The dark wooden balustrades and brick floor, the lighting subtle enough for dates to find a hint of romance yet bright enough that families can keep a close eye on their kids—all of this has been minutely, smartly crafted. It gets loud in here, but even that somehow ends up creating more of a boisterous atmosphere than a nuisance. It’s a dining room perfectly suited to the food and the concept, warm and exuberant in equal measure.
The best entrees are like that, too. A recent special of kampachi arrived impeccably moist beneath a shattering golden crust from the heat of the pan. Brushed with a bright, sweet glaze, and resting atop a nest of well-seasoned bok choy, this was a fish perfect for this transitional season, where the heartier flavors of winter begin to give way to lighter springtime profiles. Vitello da Soli, on the other hand, was more focused on winter, the smokiness of the tender veal chops and the rich balsamic—fig preserve looking back to a time of colder temps and heartier flavors. This, however, was the only (minor) misstep I encountered: Those preserves should have had a more prominent role, which would have balanced out the meat and framed it better. But that’s a quibble, a small issue in an otherwise stellar procession of dishes.
Desserts followed suit, though ask which ones are made in-house and which are brought in. (Not that it seems to affect quality: A brought-in red velvet cake with a center of chocolate tucked into its heart was lovely.) Among the homemade ones, I’d recommend the amaretto cheesecake above the cannoli. The latter, though pleasant, couldn’t compare to the deep nutty satisfaction carried along by that moist ricotta wedge of the former.
Da Soli, then, is proof that you don’t need a prominent street presence, even in a pedestrian town like Haddonfield, to draw guests in and keep them coming back. All you really need is an accomplished chef like Mark Berenato in the kitchen, supported by a staff as enthusiastic and warm as his food. So far, it’s proven to be a winning combination.
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 1 (April, 2012).
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