The name - ITA101 - sounds more like a dry college course than an alluring proposition for dinner. And, to be sure, a meal at Medford's newest BYOB begins with a history lecture.
"Chef and co-owner Kevin Maher is originally from Medford," the server tells us in her pat spiel. "But then he went to Italy - and stayed for 14 years." Pause for effect. We nod our heads, dutifully impressed. "So we serve only authentic food here. Our goal is to educate our patrons on how Italians eat on a daily basis."
The preamble is awkwardly long and delivered with a tone that comes off as both stiff and vaguely condescending. As if in 2016, the notion that Italian food could be anything more than meatballs and veal parm would still be a revelation. For a restaurant whose fresh approach and skillfully prepared menu should speak for itself, the lesson seemed somewhat unnecessary.
"Maybe in the city people do know that," concedes Maher, 42, a C.I.A.-grad who worked for almost three years at Il Pittore in Center City before heading back home to this Pinelands town for his solo shot.
Considering his partner, Tony Sparacio, owns a couple of local pizzerias called Riviera that do big business selling veal parm and pies topped with everything from taco meat to Buffalo chicken, perhaps some explaining felt required. And judging from the jug-size bottles of pink moscato fueling the howls from a big birthday party of ladies sitting behind us in this already noisy BYOB space, it's debatable whether the lecture is being registered.
The message is clear, however, on the plates. Maher, who worked at Michelin-starred restaurants in Milan (including Il Luogo di Aimo e Nadia), shows a knack for capturing seasonality and refined simplicity with fresh pastas and seafood.
A recent tasting menu ode to spring peas brought some toothy elbows of semolina gramigna pasta (extruded at one of Sparacio's other restaurants) glazed in a green pea puree and cradling tender little shrimp with steamed cockles. A thicker version of that puree, made from basil and pureed pea pods, snapped with delicate, tender pea tendrils for an opening soup. The intense green sweetness of fresh whole peas, meanwhile, popped like garden jewels against beautifully seared Barnegat scallops, salty nuggets of pancetta, and a pea puree unexpectedly scented with vanilla-basil oil.
The fact there were only two modest-size scallops on that plate put a minor damper on my enthusiasm. Yes, it was one of four small courses in that week's $45 "sagre" menu dedicated to peas (a different ingredient is featured each Thursday). But it was an especially skimpy showing for the entrée slot.
Likewise, the à la carte entrée prices here, which can crest into the $30s and beyond, don't always feel like especially good values. A $40 charge was a lot for the pan-seared swordfish. On the other hand, I can't quite forget the evocative Southern Italian flavors on that dish - the juicy seared swordfish perched over a creamy puree of toasted almonds beneath a piquant tumble of Castelvetrano olives, capers, and tomatoes. A hefty beef short rib, also pricey at $30, was meltingly tender over an asparagus emulsion scattered with roasted cauliflower and pancetta from Lansdowne's 1732 Meats.
The quality of the ingredients and, for the most part, the care of the execution almost always gave ITA101 the benefit of the doubt.
A more elegant presentation would have been nice for the one-and-a-half-pound whole red snapper, which was quickly roasted inside a salt crust in the wood-fired oven, then deboned in the kitchen, ultimately arriving as a pile of flesh on the plate. But, wow, was that meat moist and full of flavor, and further amped by the umami of a porcini mushroom puree that mingled with earthy chickpeas and asparagus tips. Likewise for the perfectly pink old-school rack of lamb, vibrant with Tuscan rosemary, garlic, and sage over moist grains of farro studded with chunks of artichoke hearts.
As if to emphasize the "everyday-eating" aesthetic, Maher doesn't fuss over fancy presentations, opting instead for the simple charms of rustic flavors. A "timballo" of eggplant - a casserole usually baked into a well-defined dome - was a shapeless pile of paper-thin eggplant layered with marinara and Grana Padano cheese. But the lack of form did not detract from the fact that this was a more satisfying, lighter take on the old Parmesan, with the eggplant's luscious texture and flavor shining through.
Some of the housemade pastas also did this well, like the hand-cut pappardelle curled around a rough mince of wild boar that had been braised to tenderness with rosemary and a hint of nutmeg. The mafaldine ribbons that napped in an almost creamy emulsion of vibrant green Trapanese pesto was memorable, too. A tagliatelle tossed with seafood - quite a bit, actually, for a $12 half portion - was notable for the fresh chile spice that threaded its red sauce with a burn.
I appreciated the flavors in ITA101's cacio e pepe, all black pepper and sheepy tang, but the cheese was clumpy and the sauce a bit oily - a sign it had perhaps been finished over too much heat. I loved the restaurant's house-pulled mozzarella, but the San Daniele prosciutto alongside it was sliced far too thick. These were small complaints, though, for a place whose biggest kitchen struggles were more questions of delivering fair value. The herb-roasted chicken over fingerling potatoes was excellent. But for $25, I'd rather order something other than chicken.
The sound level is a bigger problem. The space has the typical minimalist elegance of many BYOBs, with brick walls, tile floors, and drum-shaped pendant lights. But all those hard surfaces can make the room uncomfortably noisy - despite some obviously ineffective ceiling treatments.
But our table, at least, was hushed when the desserts arrived. First, we inhaled the shockingly vivid herbal punch of fresh basil that wafted up from a bright green pudding ringed with the red warmth of sautéed strawberries. And then we were transfixed by the tableside drama of a cleverly deconstructed tiramisu, fresh-baked ladyfingers that were doused before us with espresso from a red-capped moka pot, then dolloped with spoonfuls of impossibly light clouds of whipped mascarpone.
"Oh no, I don't do dessert," protested my guest before she finally relented and put a forkful in her mouth. Her eyes shut as a serene pleasure washed across her face - and then she suddenly smacked the table with delight. Yeah. That good.
It's called Delicious 101.
Next week, Craig LaBan explores the state of seafood houses old and new at the Jersey Shore.
VERY GOOD (two bells out of four)
20 S. Main St., Medford, N.J. 609-654-0101; ita101.com
Medford's native son Kevin Maher has returned from a 14-year cooking tour of Italy (followed by a stint at Il Pittore) to bring authentic Italian flavors dosed with seasonal tasting menus, deft seafood, and fresh pastas to an ambitious BYOB on this quaint South Jersey Main Street. The food is fresh, handmade, and filled with a genuine personal passion that deserves an audience - even if prices sometimes trend a little high and the exposed brick dining room can become terribly noisy.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS House mozzarella and prosciutto; eggplant timballo; fresh pea soup; spaghetti alla chitarra cacio e pepe; pappardelle with wild boar ragu; gramigna pasta with pea sauce and shrimp; lamb chops; braised short ribs; swordfish with almond puree; salt-crusted fish; basil Bavarian with strawberries; table-side tiramisu.
BYOB Think Italian, and try a delicate Northern Italian white bianco from the Alto Adige region, like a Tiefenbrunner pinot bianco. A good medium-bodied Italian red, like a chianti riserva or barbera d'alba (or the Tuscan ampeleia featured in this week's Drink), will suit the short rib, game ragus, and lamb.
WEEKEND NOISE There's some soundproofing, but it doesn't work. The small dining room can hit a raucous 96 decibel roar. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Dinner 5-9 p.m. Sunday, Tuesday through Thursday, and until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Dinner entrées, $18-$45.
All major cards.
Reservations highly suggested weekends.
Free street and lot parking nearby.