This review is from Restaurant Fiction’s archives. It was first published in April of 1953.
Exit 98 changed. Belmar, New Jersey will never be the same. And it’s all because of a restaurant called Paradise.
Osterias with their spaghetti and meatballs are a dime a dozen. Though all ma and pa owned, they seem like they’re apart of one big franchise.
Paradise’s tablecloths are white, and there’s not one but two wine glasses next to each setting. “Mambo Italiano,” isn’t shouted from every sound box. It’s a calm and soothing environment where the cuisine comes from Southern Italy’s Abruzzo region. A part of Italy that only serves the best olive oils, herbs, fish, breads, balsamics, and vegetables.
Paradise hosted a feast last night to a handful of folks. Truth be told, the American people haven’t been exposed to this smorgasbord of Italian goodness yet, but when they do, they’ll taste that there’s a lot more to life than chicken parmesan.
The tasting meal came from a tiny cottage kitchen in the back. Hanging culatello’s, dried chilies, and a large Parmesean cheese wheel would exalt any Nonna if she ever walked in.
Table wine pours freely with smooth Montepulcianos and Trebbianos. No one measures. Crunchy crostinis, tender crusted ciabatta slices, and breadsticks scented with rosemary don’t want to be eaten but don’t want to be wasted either. Carpaccio and caprese salad is the first course. Half frozen red sirloin drizzled with Colline Teramane olive oil, lemon, and a sprinkle of arugula is a Jackson Pollack of almost every flavor profile. The mozzarella for the Caprese doesn’t come from a cow but from a water buffalo. It’s softer and let’s the basil and tomato have their own intimate relationship without being too needy. Soup is simple vegetable minestrone with more attention given to the carrots. Minestrone is not a trope when done right. Three types of risotto representing the Italian flag start to show off the trattoria’s strengths: Risotto verde: a perfect mix of parsley, peas, and pancetta, risotto bianco: subtle flavors of white truffle mixed with butter, white wine, and parm, and, a tomato based risotto mixed with chopped clams, mussels, and squid.
Timpano (aka timballo) is the starch. This is the dish. It’s a baked pasta in the shape of a timpani drum. No other Italian restaurant in Jersey or the rest of the United States of America has ever attempted the feat. Salami is layered with meatballs, mozzarella, tomato, hardboiled eggs, and hand rolled garganelli. A large pasta noodle a little larger and sturdier than lasagna acts as its shell. Paradise has guts to make timpano and the confidence comes from inner love, a love to share good food with the rest of Jersey.
The belt is off. The posture is slouched. Is there any more room left in the tummy? Yes. Vegetables are roasted asparagus with Sorrento lemons, roasted beet salad with sage, vinegar, and olive oil, meaty and tender hearts of artichokes dressed in mint and more of the liquid sunshine of Sorrento lemon juice. A potato medley hits the table baked in a tart pan, and last but not least, sautéed broccoli in infused garlic olive oil.
The culinary marathon keeps going. Italians love their whole roasted fish. Trout replaces the usual branzino and sea bass. The skin is firm but not flaky. A whole pig is simple and succulent. It’s nothing special in terms of technique or creativity and that’s okay. Sometimes the oldest and easiest recipes are not meant to be messed with. Desserts are cigarettes, amaro, and bicerin (coffee, milk, and chocolate).
Falling asleep at the table in restaurants is not polite in most cases. Paradise is the exception where it is the highest of all compliments.
Bel Mar, New Jersey
ATMOSPHERE: 40-70 year olds concentrate solely on bespoke Southern Italian cuisine not known to the rest of Jersey in peace and quiet.
SERVICE: One busser and one maître d: highly skilled and attentive. They’re accommodating but really don’t want to change anything.
SOUND LEVEL: Usually calm and serene, but when people have timpano and large amounts of wine in their systems, it can get rather jovial.
DRINKS AND WINE: Montepulcianos
OPEN: Tues-Sat; 5-10pm
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes
Restrooms: It is a single stall with an original Thomas Crapper.