Don Pepe

Don Pepe

Wouldn’t this look better with
even just a sliver of lemon rind?

I really wanted Spanish/ethnic food, something new, but again, I became frustrated with these snooty places 10 miles in the other direction.  So, I got there early to have a Negroni before dinner.  I needed it.  A great cocktail invented by Salvador Dali & Federico Fellini, so simple, but a great aperitif (pre-dinner cocktail).  It is simply, equal parts of Campari from Italy, Gin and Sweet Vermouth.  However, this one was not quite “there”.  Campari was in there for sure, vermouth as well, but either they were using a tasteless gin, little of it, or none at all.  Plus there was no lemon or orange rind.  Even my mother, the simplest of simple people in the world knew every cocktail should come with a garnish more than a straw.  And, when I made fun of her once, she found an article and presented it to me proving her point.  She was right (as most mothers usually are no matter how much we fail to recognize it) but she was no culinary snow like me, however, she was right.  There is something about that garnish that makes the cocktail come alive, even if its a paper umbrella.  Seriously how much could it cost to drop in a cherry, olive, or in this case .02cents of a lemon wedge even when lemons are going for .99cents retail?

Ok, but enough of that, it hit the spot, along with the 3 slices of bread and 1 slice of garlic bread.  Though I was early and waiting for my brother, I told them another person would be joining me. No, we did not need a loaf of bread, half a loaf or even a lot of garlic bread, but I think we are entitled to more than 3 slices of bread and at least 2 slices of garlic bread if there are 2 of us dining?  My brother was a half hour late.  Guess who got the only slice of garlic bread?  I won’t spoil the surprise but I can tell you it was delicious.

So, a couple slices of bread and one cocktail later, my brother shows up.  And that is when things got more promising and I didn’t see paella on the menu, or anything else I liked or was in the mood for.  I guess the last time I either had mistaken it for their other place up the street or I simply had the fish.  I had fish on Saturday night at a wedding, so bad in fact, I could not eat it again today.  But the appetizers look really good, I might just order 2-3 of them and have that for dinner.  But the waiter read us the specials.  Grilled octopus with fresh paprika sounded especially good.  When it came it was so tender, so perfect, it was the very best octopus I’ve ever had, really.  So, with that we got that and the fried calamari (always a crowd pleaser, even amongst the pickiest children, anything fried is good), along with half a pitcher of white wine sangria.  We were enjoying that so much, we forgot to order dinner.

When we did, the waiter had to repeat the specials for the 3rd time.  He had a heavy spanish accent, but for me it was more about what was served with it, and what the prices were.  I know my brother was paying for it, but you should always ask the prices of the specials.  Simple reason being, is that they are often $5 more than the top entree on the menu, but also, if you don’t ask, they can easily charge you $10 more.  Yes, its not cool, and preying on diner’s lack of knowledge, but its 2011, and it is how things are done in the restaurant world, hopefully not often, but always ask the price and make sure it matches the check when it comes no matter how much sangria you have had.

So, Brazino I don’t think I’ve ever had, its a salt water fish, white, sounded good, but again, as much as I love fish, was not in the mood after the last piece I ate at one of the “best” catering halls in NJ.  The snapper was interesting, but you have to have that whole, not a filet.  So, I got the veal osso bucco.  I knew its a large piece of food, after all, it is the calf or shank of a cow from a calve (young cow).  But when this came out I was taken back.  It was enormous.  In fact, in the traditional Italian restaurants this would be cut in three pieces and served over risotto.  In this case it was a very large piece served with saffron rice and thin sliced fried potatoes.  Where do I start?  I love rice, and it was fresh, fluffy and flavorful.  The potatoes I was popping like potato chips, but they were not overly greasy, salty but delectable.  And the veal osso bucco.  Probably the best I ever had, even when I cook it at home.  It was tender, and they even gave me a slender baby spoon for the bone marrow which was perfectly cooked.  As large as it looks, about half of it was bone, a big piece I gave to my brother (which he loved more than his pork chops) and the rest was a lot of fat mixed in with meat which I did not care to eat.  Yes, I finished it all (with some help) but all is well, it would not have reheated well.

So there you have it, a fantastic meal, drinks, appetizers, wine, entrees big enough for 2 and/or leftovers and no snobby waiters or hostesses, and in the end was about $100.  Not cheap, not expensive, but definitely memorable, satisfying and yes, I will return there again when all other places fail to accept me without a reservation.

Post & Photos by Justin R. Cristaldi

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