Barone’s Tuscan Grill: Taste of Tuscany
280 Young Ave.
Italian: It’s by far the most popular cuisine in South Jersey. Finding an Italian eatery is never too difficult, which just means that the competition—and quality—of Italian fare has gone way beyond spaghetti and meatballs.
Barone’s Tuscan Grill has proved that it has some serious staying power, getting its start in Pennington before moving into a bustling shopping center off Moorestown’s Centerton Road. It’s the family name of brothers Vincenzo and Giovanni Barone, using recipes passed on from their grandfather Giovanni. And the menu centers around “Nonno’s” Neapolitan cuisine, with a focus on fresh bread, pastas and house-made sauces.
Inside Barone’s, the dining room was open and intimate, but on this particular end of a summer evening, my guest and I opted for their outdoor porch. We walked into an open stone courtyard, with a fountain running down the center and small tables set between pillars covered in hanging ivy. Across the fountain, the neighboring restaurant’s diners sat in a similar setting, but even with both restaurants and the high volume of diners, the courtyard remained calm and relaxing. As the sun went down, it was truly enchanting, as close to Tuscany as you can get in a shopping center off Route 38.
The menu made good on their promise of Tuscan food: Instead of the pounds of pasta, Parmesan and gravy you might find at other Italian joints, Barone’s instead embraces Tuscany’s focus on meat, fresh vegetables and lighter sauces. Entrées were designed to appeal to any diner, ranging from a handful of fresh pizzas with a whole range of toppings to house specials, chicken and veal, most with accompanying pastas and all coming with a house salad.
Having scoped out the whole menu, I was excited for the plates to start arriving. But an unpleasant, fishy smell arrived to our table before our order of mussels in red sauce did. It was a smell that permeated through every mussel, into the fresh red tomato sauce with chunks of hearty tomato that sat at the bottom of the dish. The house-made marinara looked like it had real potential, as did the small, plump mussels, but a lack of fresh seafood compromised the entire dish.
Asparagus bella nonna, on the other hand, was made all the better by the thin and crisp asparagus that arrived, wrapped in prosciutto and covered with melted fontina cheese.
The generous pile of asparagus was swimming in a decadent roasted garlic and white wine sauce, which paired nicely with the salty cheese and meat and the fresh asparagus.
The vitello saltimbocca Romana featured a tender but poorly seasoned serving of thin-cut veal. The flavor was saved by the plate’s salty prosciutto, melted mozzarella and a hearty serving of garlicky baby spinach, sautéed nicely but still fresh and vibrant, all of which was smothered in a creamy sage demi glace.
The sauce on the pollo di ucio—which came topped with lump crab meat and asparagus—also stole the show, a roasted garlic and white wine sauce that was rich with saltiness and sweetness from the wine. But once again, unfresh seafood overpowered most of the plate, with the lump crab meat’s bad taste creeping into the delicate chicken.
And the chicken was a pale white, coated in a gluey, flavorless breading. But accompanying fried potatoes and sautéed vegetables were crispy and packed with flavor, and only made better by the hearty sauce.
A special pan-seared tuna is also worth mentioning. Served over sautéed spinach and a mushroom risotto, the plate is completed with a red wine reduction. The fish comes rare, as it should, and blends harmoniously with the other flavors on the plate. If only the other seafood dishes lived up to the billing.
Desserts came from the national supplier Bindi, and sat inside a display case at the front of the entrance still in their paper wrappers. The Jim Beam banana cream cake came with a freeze-dried banana crisp on top. It was a small serving, which was nice after the heavy dinner, coated in dark chocolate ganache with layers of banana cream, Jim Beam custard and a thin layer of vanilla cake. The concept overall was nice, but it was crying for some slices of banana or something to make it fresh.
The Italian competition in South Jersey is tough and, if Barone’s wants to be a major player, they’ll have to iron out some kinks. Of course, with so much saturation, it’s easy to hide in plain sight, too.
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 6 (September, 2013).
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