Loyal readers of the blog may recall my great Aunt Emily; my dad's 97 year old Aunt who, while 90% deaf and cranky as all hell, has all her wits about her. This can often subject the fam to Livia Soprano esque spells of tension, making our monthly get togethers with her..."interesting" to say the least. They always feature one constant: one or all of us is trying to get out of an Italian guilt trip of some kind. During any given time spent with Auntie Em, I am most likely fielding questions on the following topics: my haircut, my infrequent calls to her, my lack of a "lady friend," or my generation's unfortunate exposure to iphones and HDTV's (what evil devices!). Nonetheless, we still love her and she's family (and I'm not complaining either when she cuts me $100 checks for birthdays and christmas).
Aunt Emily (above) also bears a very similar resemblance to Tommy's mother from Goodfellas (below). I believe they see the same optician and stylist. They also harbor a soft spot for Italian, gangster men (which we can get into some other day).
For some reason, Aunt Emily's filter, if she ever had one, reaches Andrew Dice Clay levels of ineffectiveness when the group goes out to dinner. Waiters, bartenders, hosts - no one is safe from her subtle yet obvious jabs. To counter said behavior, the Iaciofano family has learned of two valuable tactics: (1) get her a martini, stat. Like, get it to her yesterday. Shit, hold the damn thing to her lips as if you were sharing your Canteen with a friend to combat dehydration in the desert if you have to. Also, make sure the martini is "very dry" (all booze) with "very" being typically emphasized by dad to the waiter for added importance. This makes for a calmer, happier Emily. (2) If we are going to go out to dinner, the only place in which Emily's inner Walt Kowalski will most likely lie dormant is at long time Jersey Italian restaurant, Casa Bella, on route 46 in Denville - where she feels right at home.
Truthfully, neither Elana nor I mind suffering through a couple of pre-martini guilt trips when it's coupled with a suburban visit to Casa Bella; our experiences have always been extremely solid, even if the scene and vibe itself is not exactly classic or cutting edge (the interior has a bit of a 70's Michael Corleone's Lake Tahoe Estate interior).
After Emily takes a few healthy gulps from her drink (which she likes! Huge collective exhale from the family), the group offers a few appetizers. One of them, is an absolute gem - Casa Bella's seafood salad (pictured above): a delightfully refreshing and flavorful collection of meaty scallops, calamari and shrimp. Everything is fresh and dressed in lemony, sweet oil. It's truly excellent. The fried calamari, is crispy, light, and is served with a tangy sauce. We also ordered a cold antipasto, which featured some home made mozzarella that was fantastic: creamy, salty, and touch sour. Just perfect.
Casa Bella is one of those Italian restaurants with an almost bible thick menu that has not changed in probably 30 years. It has a full offering of chicken, pasta, veal, meats, and fish, with about 8-10 variants of each. There's honestly about 50 entrees, PLUS specials - so narrowing it down may take some time.
But I eventually settle for Zuppa di Pesce - a fish/pasta combo of serious proportions: lobster, scallops, shrimp, calamari, and muscles served over a king sized bed of pasta, which sits in a thin, broth-like tomato based sauce. It's quite good, although I suspected they cheaped out a bit on the lobster tail, which was a bit tough this time around.
Elana's bronzino, served with spinach and garlic, is an absolute taste explosion. Perfectly salty, bitter and "garlicky." Curiously, however, a "soft serve" style portion of mashed potatoes is prominently featured as a side. Is this an Italian thing I am unaware of? Also served with dinner is some warm, moist onion bread.
For dessert, the group devours Casa Bella's tartufo and tiramisu. Both are strong, post-meal performances in which everyone shares and enjoys. Elana, however is a bit disappointed in the tiramisu's lack of rum. Tiramisu should have rum, she says.
As for the TJ Maxx adorned bathrooms, they were clean, private, and featured one of those motion sensored dyson hand dryers.
When all is said and done, Casa Bella delivers a well above average exprience that is reliable, consistent, and well staffed. There is absolutely nothing wrong with good, predictable Italian food.
Overall experience: Shawshank Redemption