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Piccola Italia
837 West Park Avenue
Ocean, Monmouth County, New Jersey
(732) 493-3090


I first reviewed Piccola Italia over eight years ago. Exteriorly, not a great deal has changed in the interim; tucked away in the Cobblestone Village Shopping Center, the restaurant is still sandwiched between a kosher restaurant and a tiny Chinese chophouse. Internally, however, there have been a number of major innovations.

Piccola Italia InteriorThe dining room was always attractively and tastefully appointed; but the addition of a cozy bar – which was quickly discovered by local patrons as a suitable gathering place – gives the restaurant an even more intimate feel.

At the time of my first visit, chef/proprietor Brian Gualtieri was aided and abetted by able sous chef Aaron Philipson; Mr. Philipson’s wife, Rory, later joined on as the restaurant’s pastry chef. Both later departed to open their own restaurant, the highly successful Blue Bottle Café in Hopewell, New Jersey.

Piccola Italia originally offered innovatively prepared classic Italian dishes complemented by occasional international dots and dashes. In the interim, Mr. Gualtieri has redefined the restaurant’s menu, fusing fresh Mediterranean flavors with the traditional regional styles of Italian cooking. The result, I would hasten to add, is incredibly impressive. Notes from my original review continue to be entirely appropriate: “Presentations are generous without being grandiose, attractively eye-catching without becoming eyesores. Proportions – flavors, colors, textures – are all right in sync.

Mussels & Cockle Clams

To start things off, bivalve fans will find it hard to resist the combo of plump & succulent Prince Edward Island mussels and cockle clams. They arrive at table swimming in a superlative white wine broth redolent of toasted garlic, summer herbs, and lemongrass. Continuing in the seafood vein, the addictive polenta-fried oysters come replete with remoulade and a zippy Cajun coleslaw, while the calamari are companioned by spicy filetto di pomodoro, Tuscan crostini, and a provocative pesto vinaigrette.

Greenery is also deftly and innovatively handled. Traditional Caesar salad, for example, is significantly spruced up with mild white anchovies, oven-dried tomatoes, grilled red onion, shaved Piave cheese (a densely-textured Italian cheese with an intense, full-bodied, slightly sweet flavor), and a roasted garlic crouton. Panzanella – the traditional Italian bread salad – is delectably embellished with marinated tomato & arugula, shaved fennel, roasted Jersey corn, and farmer’s cheese; and the brown butter-roasted pear & Brie cheese salad is adorned with frisée, toasted almonds, spiced granola, and a vanilla-honey vinaigrette.

Piccola Italia InteriorMy favorite starter salad, however, takes a more classic route: heirloom tomatoes, arugula, mozzarella, and artistic splashes of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. A relatively straightforward presentation that is, at the same time, sublime in its simplicity.

RigatoniAs you move on, the primi piatti, pasta dishes, are all exceptionally well prepared and presented. The slow-braised pulled free range chicken is combined with pappardelle pasta, grape tomatoes, baby spinach, fresh mozzarella, cherry peppers, grilled red onion, and tossed with an excellent smoked tomato cream sauce. The house-made ricotta gnocchi is positively ethereal on the palate and creatively teamed with pulled duck confit, summer corn, peas, zucchini, Baby spinach, and a Sauternes-infused butter. The rigatoni is also made in house and finds more time-honored traveling companions in crunchy, perfectly pan-roasted shrimp, hot Italian sausage, broccoli rabe, and splashes of garlic and oil.

Grandma's LasagnaAnd speaking of time-honored, nothing could be more traditional than Chef Gualtieri’s version of “Grandma’s Lasagna.” Presented en casserole, it is a seductive synthesis of fresh pasta, eggplant, herbed ricotta cheese, filetto di pomodoro, and delightfully creamy melted mozzarella. Outrageously rich… but certainly worth the not insignificant caloric expenditure.

Secondi piatti, main courses, give diners a wealth of diverse possibilities, from Creole bouillabaisse to Gorgonzola-encrusted filet mignon to ancho chili barbecued pork chop to pan-seared duck breast with honey & Sauternes gastrique.

Seafood, however, is particularly noteworthy. The porcini-dusted seared day boat scallops, for example, are set on a sumptuous seabed of truffle mashed potatoes and finished with beurre blanc and a port wine reduction; the pan-seared wild salmon filet is companioned by horseradish mashed potatoes and consummated with an assertive beurre rouge; the citrus-infused grilled shrimp scampi comes replete with lemon confit risotto and asparagus; and the pan-seared jumbo lump crab cakes sport south-of-the-border embellishments of refried black beans and an avocado & crabmeat pico di gallo.

And if you’re in search of supplemental fare, the truffle risotto is highly recommended, ditto the inordinately tender broccoli rabe sautéed with garlic and extra-virgin olive oil. On the other hand, nothing quite beats the incomparable creamed spinach. The spinach is obvious fresh (not frozen) and it is splendidly seasoned and just creamy enough without being outlandishly unctuous. A perfect side dish for any meal.

Bourbon Glazed Bread PuddingDesserts are every bit the equal of their predecessors. And the star of the show…? No question, the bourbon glazed bread pudding crowned with vanilla gelato. Addictively delicious.

Even after an absence of eight years, Piccola Italia remains a delight for both eye and palate. This is one restaurant that is always worth a visit.

The Artful Diner is an independent, freelance food writer.  His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.

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