The Jersey Shore can offer a disconcertingly gray landscape in winter - the colors, crowds, and excitement of summer are so conspicuously absent. The feeling was especially bleak, though, one chilly recent eve when I pulled into the parking lot of Plaza 9 in Northfield, a strip mall ringed by stores proffering "cash for gold," Chinese take-out, thrift clothing, and the opportunity to enlist in the Coast Guard.
Could this really be the address of one of South Jersey's best restaurants? And how could a great chef - a rising star who once rode high atop the crest of Atlantic City's glitziest casino dining rooms before the gambling town's crash - rediscover the magic in his culinary soul here?
The answers are not obvious from the nondescript, curtained storefront that is the exterior of Luke Palladino Seasonal Italian Cooking. But from the moment I cracked the door to this 30-seat BYOB, I was enveloped by the warmth of truffle-scented air. A joyous energy swelled through the shoebox-size room. The crisp white and unvarnished wood space was already jam-packed at 5:30 p.m. with elegantly dressed diners clinking glasses of fine wine, their fur- and cashmere-trimmed behinds apparently unfazed by hard banquettes. The cushions, it seems, had been moved against the front windows to block the winter's chill.
The warming flash of a grill, separated from diners by an open curtain and a giant butcher block laden with cheeses and salumi and colorful crocks of antipasti, drew eyes toward the back, where a flurry of line cooks simmered toothy fresh bucatini to order, flipped garlicky bisteccas alla Fiorentina, and crisped arancini rice balls with hearts that oozed truffled Sottocenere cheese when I cracked them open.
It was as if someone inside this little storefront had flipped the "good life" switch to "on" and Luke Palladino was its power source, the 41-year-old conducting these dreamy Italian meals with prosciutto-wrapped grissini bread sticks as he prowled the expediter's spot in the fluorescent glow of his open kitchen.
Bowls of marinated butternut squash emerge, their natural sweetness tarted up with a Sicilian agrodolce of garlicky vinegar softened with sugar and mint. Deep-fried florettes of cauliflower are mounded into airy clouds of translucent crunch dusted with the zing of pecorino and chile flakes. A silky "sformato" flan topped with a delicate tangle of snappy beech mushrooms is enriched with creamy foie gras and, yes, more truffle. A crock of polenta arrives beneath a plume of crisped sage flying atop an irresistibly molten crust of Gorgonzola and crumbled sausage. Breasts of duck, meanwhile, are pounded flat saltimbocca-style with sage and prosciutto, a clever upgrade from bland veal that gets even more earthy with a brown "polenta" porridge made from chestnut flour and a fistful of Brussels sprout leaves, with smoky pancetta scattered on top.
Such inspired dishes - at once inventive, authentic, and, indeed, seasonal, too - have gone a long way to making this seemingly nondescript location a gastronomic hot spot since Palladino opened last summer. It was intended as an antidote for a chef who contended that he was burned out on casino glitz, who craved a return to the atelier and the satisfaction of handcrafting plates. With several months now under its belt, the service fine-tuned, and some lingering issues ironed out, it has evolved into much more - one of the most special dining experiences in South Jersey, and one of the best Italian restaurants in the entire region. Period.
Of course, Palladino already had a huge fan base from his Borgata restaurants, Specchio and Ombra, who would travel pretty much anywhere for a helping of grissini sticks slathered in truffle butter and Parmesan before getting wrapped in silky ham. (And high-roller limos from the casinos, apparently, still frequently make the short trip to this mainland town.) The young, engaged couple at the table next to us, who generously shared extra slices of their magnificent Florentine porterhouse with a dollop of spicy-creamy broccoli rabe gratin on the side, were Borgata employees who still mourned his departure.
A.C.'s magnetic pull is undeniably strong. Still, I can't deny a twinge of concern when I learned shortly after my recent review meals that Palladino has signed on to open a 200-seater in Harrah's this summer. The chef insists he will keep his Northfield namesake open, and pledged to preserve it as his gem, with nightly trips between the two.
But he also concedes: "I can't put my kids through college on 30 seats."
It's a fair statement given the tight economics of BYOs, which Philadelphians know all too well, having seen so many of its bistro pioneers either move on or expand. But I would hate to watch this jewel begin to dim so soon after its lustrous beginning.
The pastas, which were off at my initial summer visit, are now memorable. The unusual "Marubini" ravioli, which Palladino crimps into the shapes of fluted bottle caps and postage stamps with brass presses from Italy, are filled with a minced ragu of braised flat-iron beef and leg of lamb, sauced with the braising liquid, and then scattered with shavings of truffled Moliterno cheese. Airy gnocchi seem to hover in an ivory sauce of creamed leeks flecked with smoky speck. Palladino's Bolognese, meanwhile, coats toothsome strands of pasta with a gravy that reveals itself in layers, the savor of milk-braised veal, beef, and pork woven with deeper notes of porcini, tart Vineland tomatoes, and the aromatics of cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove.
This kitchen has mastered some familiar flavors - from the chicken (marinated in lemons, chilies, and rosemary, then griddled to a crisp beneath a brick) to the whole fish (baked in "acquapazza" crazy water perfumed with fennel and chilies) to the meltingly tender fried squid, so good it was the first plate of calamari I'd eaten in years that deserved some real attention.
But I especially loved the dishes with Palladino's stylish twists - like the tender flat-iron steak "braciole," the beef pinwheeled around a garlicky green stuffing of herbs and pecorino that gets seared to order rather than braised to death; or the meaty fillet of grilled cobia touched with fennel pollen that came splashed in a light blood-orange vinaigrette with piquant Ligurian olives; or the crispy crespelle filled with wild mushrooms suspended in a flow of oozing Taleggio.
There is only the slightest drop-off in energy at dessert, with a bit more chew than there should have been, perhaps, in the fried zeppole fritters with moscato zabaglione. The chocolate pudding "torta" was tasty but predictable, save for the sly note of Nutella. I did love the bold flavor of anise that rang through the silky panna cotta. But the best finish for me was the affogato, if only because this vanilla gelato-limoncello sundae came topped with amaretti cookies and a shot of espresso. All the better for the drive back to Center City, which, surprisingly, took less than an hour on the Atlantic City Expressway. It's short enough to make this sophisticated BYO a frequent stop for Philly gastronomes - no matter the season. With his casino summer comeback looming, though, I can only hope Luke Palladino is actually there when I return.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Kennett Restaurant in Queen Village. Contact him