“Irish blood, Italian stomach.” A phrase you’re bound to hear at least once if you dine out with my old man. He only eats Italian food. More specifically, he only really cares to eat one dish: linguine with clams—or as he prefers to call it—“clam sauce.” Without hyperbole, there was not a single instance growing up when my mother didn’t serve “clam sauce” at least twice a week (mostly the red, tomato-based broth but sometimes she’d do a white sauce…for “variety”).
Dining out? The order remained the same. Moreover, at a handful of his favorite local places—spots we’d frequent on a monthly (sometimes weekly) basis—my father wouldn’t even look at a menu. He’d simply nod at our waiter and say “the usual, please,” and a large bowl of linguine alle vongole would inevitably be delivered. Throughout the better part of the ’90s and ’00s, Vincenzo’s Ristorante, was one of those places for my family.
Located in Middlesex County’s eponymous borough, Vincenzo’s wasn’t exactly in our neck of the woods; however, my dad’s definition of “local” broadened widely when it pertained to Italian restaurants with good “clam sauce.” Driving almost 40 minutes for a bowl of pasta may seem bizarre to some but it was routine for us.
As is customary in life, time brings about change and, unfortunately, part of that change for my family meant less dinners together and trips to our usual haunts. When I first started researching places to review for NJ Indy, it had been just over a decade since my last visit to Vincenzo’s. Needless to say I was elated and relieved to find them still in business. Staying-power in the food service industry (in this case, over three decades worth), particularly through a pandemic, is usually a great indicator of two things: an unwavering commitment to quality and a restaurant that has transitioned into somewhat of an institution. Both are true for this establishment.
Inside: Vincenzo’s is an anachronism in the best sense of the word. The white tablecloths, attentive bussers moving with confidence, various specials recited from memory by an adroit waiter, the rhythm of service in general—you can’t help but feel like you’re stepping back into the mid-’90s, enjoying a nostalgic dining experience that is no longer customary. One might derisively call Vincenzo’s old-fashioned, but I’d argue the same things that those cynics call outdated are the keys to their enduring success: consistency, great food and catering to a paradigm that patrons have supported for years. It’s hard to pine for change when the dining room is full before 6 on a Tuesday night.
The food: For the sake of full disclosure, considering this was a Tuesday night and the Indy Eats staff had further commitments to attend to, our dinner was a bit more hurried than usual. Time constraints forced us to skip the appetizers and proceed directly to the main course; though, not before disappearing some fresh bruschetta and warm bread that arrived at the table just as we did, and then a complimentary house salad to whet our appetites.
We decided to split two entrees from distinctly different sections of the menu. My colleague went with a bolder choice—one typically reserved for the more veteran diners, especially those with Italian ancestry (that’s him)—vitello Calabrese: veal cutlet sautéed with sausage, hot cherry peppers and a little balsamic vinegar, served over escarole. This dish, while not for the faint of heart, boasted a surprisingly masterful interplay of strong flavors. Rich, spicy, sweet, bitter— accounted for in each bite and yet, somehow, still complementary to the tender veal.
With all the talk of clam-sauce earlier, you’d think my choice of entree would be obvious; unfortunately, and perhaps the only collateral damage that can be attributed to my dad’s abnormal eating habits, I can no longer stomach linguine with clams. Instead, I opted for the homemade gnocchi portobello: fresh, al-dente gnocchi in a brown sauce (think marsala) with bits of prosciutto for extra flavor, tossed with large slices of sautéed portobello mushroom. I’m sure most food writers would now take the opportunity to call the dish “a revelation” or something along those lines, but that would be disingenuous. If you’re from Jersey and over the age of 18 (probably being generous here), revelatory experiences are not really what you’re looking for in an Italian-American menu (there are exceptions, of course). That’s not to suggest you shouldn’t expect great food. Familiar flavors, tasty and considered dishes, good portions at a fair price and most importantly: food that comforts. That’s what you’re after. The gnocchi portobello was everything we hoped it would be. Frankly, I didn’t really want to share it.
When to go: Dining on a Monday or Tuesday is not something we do by accident. Those are typically the nights when restaurants do the least covers and, not coincidentally, when most in-demand staff members, front and back of house alike, might be afforded a rare “day off.” Visiting on one of these traditionally lower-volume evenings (if they’re open) is a fair barometer of a restaurant’s leadership and commitment to quality. A good-to-great experience on a Monday or Tuesday (a la our experience at Vincenzo’s) can only bode well for what’s to come later in the week. Something to keep in mind when making reservations or planning an event at a place you’ve yet to try.