Al Dente Italiana: The Latest Dish
1690 Nixon Drive, Moorestown,
As a new father and restaurant critic, my greatest fear is that one night, not too long from now, I’ll find myself in a so-called family-style restaurant. In this recurring nightmare, I open a menu adorned with some sort of creepy, anthropomorphic spaghetti-strand mascot, to find a wine list that never expands beyond Yellow Tail Shiraz and Barefoot Moscato, and options heavily weighted toward mac-and-cheese, chicken fingers and the like. It ain’t pretty.
So, a recent Sunday visit to Al Dente Italiana—a nearly year-old eatery that combines upscale ambitions with red gravy traditionalism—was a welcome relief. This, it turns out, is a grown-up place that, while it certainly makes for a low-stress night out with the kids, still provides plenty of pleasure for those of us who want a decent meal to go along with our night out of the house.
Part of this has to do with portion size. The food here is good enough that you’ll actually want to re-heat your leftovers—and you will have leftovers. Entrees here come with a generous side bowl of soup (a recent tomato-basil number, though defined far more by the former than the latter ingredient, was nonetheless a fresh, hearty starter) or a salad (the Caesar, garlicky and creamy, was a well-prepared classic).
Beyond the extras, the preparations themselves are generous, and thoughtfully prepared. Fried calamari featured a nice balance of tentacles and rings, each tender and crisp from careful frying. They could have been seasoned more aggressively, but the sweet, tangy tomato sauce and the hearty pesto provide plenty of fireworks to compensate.
Flat breads are perfect for sharing, and come in a broad selection of toppings. The funghi misti, a three-mushroom affair, balanced the earthiness of the creminis, porcinis and portabellas with funky gorgonzola and a generous slathering of sweet-nutty garlic.
That level of technical proficiency continues throughout the meal. Chicken piccata was tender and moist, highlighted by the acidity from generous applications of lemon and capers. And grilled beef tenderloin, though perhaps a bit overwhelmed by a slightly too-thick porcini demi-glace, nonetheless served as a lovely, toothy protein, shining with all the meat’s inherent earthiness.
Pasta dishes were no less carefully assembled. Fettuccine con vodka exemplified exactly what’s so appealing about adding that spirit to tomato sauces: It serves to amp up the other flavors, which here landed on the sweeter end of the spectrum. Accompanying shrimp, plump and snappy, played into this flavor profile as well, and with real verve. Spaghetti and meatballs were slightly more acidic—a smart move given the unctuousness of the homemade meatballs.
Come dessert time, you’ll likely want to take advantage of the house-made gelato. When you walk in, there’s a counter off to the right featuring all the flavors whipped up in-house. They’re intense and exceptionally evocative; make sure to try the toasted almond, the pistachio and the chocolate-peanut butter. And while the ladyfingers in the tiramisu could have used a longer soak (or any soak) in espresso or amaretto, the dessert was nonetheless a success—a fluffy outsize brick, served in Jewish-deli-style abundance.
Al Dente, then, is that rare restaurant that caters to the whole family in the best possible sense. My nightmares, for now, at least, have been allayed—until my nephew’s next birthday party—at Chuck E. Cheese.
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 7 (October, 2011).
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