'I wish," the chef tells me, "that I could have just called it 'Bob's.' "
Or "Nick's" might have worked just as well to avoid the confusion, considering his name is Nick LoBianco. But pure marketing theory was never quite in play when the chef and his wife, Stephanie, decided to open a New American bistro with an Italian-sounding name in downtown Collingswood.
In Collingswood, where it seems a new Italian restaurant opens every few minutes, the arrival of a place called LoBianco isn't likely to raise many curious eyebrows. But with so many Shore Birds having already come to appreciate Nick's cooking at the couple's previous restaurant in Margate, LoBianco Coastal Cuisine, it seemed like too much earned reputation to waste for mere menu semantics.
Too many casual observers, I fear, might overlook this charming seven-month-old newcomer as just another meatball for the local gravy pot. But LoBianco is something a little different, a sophisticated taste of welcome variety for a restaurant scene that's at risk of being typecast as it grows.
Yes, there are some Italian flavors on this menu, like the rigatoni with crumbles of addictively sweet and spicy homemade fennel sausage, the tender veal scaloppine with saffron orzo, and the towering stack of chicken Milanese layered with smoked mozzarella and caponata that can abbondanza with Haddon Avenue's best.
But there is also still the same wide-ranging New American spirit, with French and some Asian influences, that established LoBianco as one of the Shore's most interesting chefs during his six years at two locations on Ventnor Avenue (both now closed).
This crisp bistro space, with cream-colored exposed brick walls and an open kitchen slipped into a side-street storefront off Haddon Avenue in the new Lumberyard complex, has more of a casual neighborhood feel than the black-leather-lounge look of their Margate digs.
But Stephanie still runs the dining room with a familial warmth. And their regulars will recognize much of LoBianco's tried-and-true menu repertoire, including the big short rib, a yakitori-glazed mop of superbly tender meat on a Flintstone-sized bone with grilled scallions and Yukon mashed potatoes. There's also a meaty fillet of pistachio-crusted halibut next to a crock of crab "cassole," a cryptic name for what is essentially luscious crab and artichoke dip with the addition of white beans.
It was satisfying, even if the halibut was a shade overcooked. But it was one of the few technical slips on a savory menu where good ingredients and solid cookery, from both Nick and his 18-year-old sous-chef son, Sage, compensate for any lack of innovative surprises.
Some of these dishes - the grilled romaine salad; the portobello with goat cheese - have a whiff of '90s retro. But they're done so nicely, and with smart little tweaks, that I was reminded why they were popular to begin with.
The mushroom cap used caramelized onions, spinach and a lemony puddle of beurre blanc sauce to counter the richness of the portobello's goat cheese stuffing. Those heat-charred romaine lettuce leaves, set atop an herby smear of minty cilantro-walnut pesto beneath a crackly shower of pancetta croutons, were as zesty, smoky and meaty as salad gets.
A composition of artfully piled spinach leaves, golden beets, grilled Granny Smith apples, and creamy dabs of goat cheese was a salad with more finesse. That old classic of prosciutto-wrapped figs drew new interest from a crisping sear on the ham, and a double dose of dairy richness, a creamy base mascarpone and salty crumbles of Roquefort on top.
Speaking of welcome comebacks for classics, who needs controversial foie gras when mere chicken livers can be turned to such pâté silk? They come here in a buttery, port-steeped spread atop walnut-raisin croutons crowned with the savory crunch of frisee greens wilted in hot sherry vinegar and bacon.
LoBianco saves its ducks for the splendidly tender confit, which comes shredded into potato hash inside a cute Staub crock beneath a poached egg. The remaining rendered duck fat is put to good use as the ultimate searing agent. It crisps the big coriander-crusted rib-eye, and it's also used for the huge scallops and hanger steak combo - which would have been perfect had the meat not been presliced and set atop garlic mashed potatoes, which drained it of its juice.
If LoBianco has a weakness, it is the consistent penchant for too much sweetness in savory dishes. It was a bit cloying on the yakitori-glazed short rib, which otherwise was sublimely tender. It was also a bit more obvious than I'd like in the fennel sausage pasta, though the earthy flicker of chile heat kept it in check. Likewise, a kiss of vermouth was an unexpected accent to the fennel backbone of the saffron bouillabaisse broth. But with so much carefully poached seafood crammed inside the big brothy crock - little clams, shrimp, scallops, and snapper - it was impossible not to enjoy.
Still, I might have preferred it in the drier style of LoBianco's mussels, in which the full-flavored saffron and fennel fish stock is given a flavor boost with smoked paprika compound butter.
Oddly, when it comes time for the traditional sweets, at dessert, LoBianco loses its steam. The Belgian waffles were pale and flabby. The store-bought ice cream was chewy. The dark chocolate torte was acceptably chocolatey, with fudgy ganache layered between rich cake, but it was also a little dense and too predictable.
So there's still plenty of room for LoBianco to improve (even without changing its name). But what makes this newcomer one of the brightest recent additions to Collingswood's dining scene is that it's anything but predictable.
Next Sunday, restaurant critic Craig LaBan reviews Bistrot La Minette in Queen Village. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.