A driver heading north on Route 27 from Princeton toward Kingston could be forgiven for mistaking two things. First, for not realizing that they had left Princeton at all. Or second, for believing they had found a slice of Italy in southern Middlesex County.
A case in point is the latest addition to the tiny hamlet’s hearty dining scene: Casa Gennaro. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same Gennaro who operated first La Terrazza and then Gennaro’s Restaurant on State Road in Princeton.
The Kingston restaurant is located in a Victorian home that was formerly an attorney’s office, next door to Gennaro’s Italian Market, which Gennaro Costabile opened in 2014. E.E. Whiting reported on a recent dinner excursion in the March 20 issue of U.S. 1:
Dinner is limited to Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from 5 to 10 p.m. Given the intimate seating, reservations are highly recommended. My friend and I arrived at 7 on a Friday and nearly all the tables were filled. We were seated immediately and Gennaro greeted us shortly after we sat down. An ice bucket appeared with champagne flutes (the restaurant is BYOB) and dinner was off to a rousing start. We never felt rushed.
The house retains its residential feel. The decor is soft greys, and the wooden tables are comfortably placed. The charm of the cafe is in its limited seating and its specialized menu. The walls are decorated with black-and-white vintage photos of scenes of Naples (c. 1800s and early 1900s).
The chef Benjamin Brault can be seen on the floor along with Gennaro, helping to serve and bring personal service to diners. My friend and I had the chance to chat with Gennaro (you immediately feel so at home you just use his first name instinctively) at various points during our visit. He means it when he says you are his guest. His goal is making and keeping devoted diners; a goal that cannot help but be met given our warm reception. The staff is friendly and efficient. My only wish was that they would slow down a bit when describing the specials. The deliciousness is in the details, and I wanted to catch every nuance of the dishes.
The menu is small, always a sign of thoughtful preparation and creative dishes. There are signature pasta dishes ($22) as well as a variety of meat or fish entrees ($25 to $36) but Gennaro made a point of saying that he encourages customers to ask for a favorite dish even if it’s not on the printed menu. The variety is cause for repeat visits.
We ordered the signature appetizer, Greens Gennaro, simply because I had heard about it and it more than lives up to its reputation. It is warm, perfectly sauteed escarole combined with chopped hot cherry peppers and prosciutto, with seasoned breadcrumbs and sprinkling of house-blended cheeses. At $13, it is large enough to share as a small starter each. And the bread, ah, the bread, served hot — genuinely hot so that the butter soaks in. Other starters and salads are $12 to $15.
For entrees my friend had the pork ossobuco ($32) which was rich, savory, and fell completely off the bone. I had the seared tuna ($36) served with a melange of seasoned vegetables. We watched as other diners were served and everything came out perfectly plated and very tempting. Lest we forget, dessert was equally delightful. We shared the Dolce Italiano, which had small portions of several sweets, just enough for a bite or two each. Not too little, not too much ($12).
We were tempted by the Insalata Contadina with field greens, ricotta salata, dried cranberries, roasted corn, mushrooms, grape tomatoes, and sherry vinaigrette as well as the Angus beef short ribs braised with wild mushroom and tomato ragout. But we had to leave something for next time.
The Scallops Arrosto (served with creamy arborio risotto, portobello mushrooms, and spinach, $36) and the Branzino Corfu (with grape tomatoes, capers, lemon, and vegetable risotto, $36) display the chef’s fine touch with seafood. We overtly coveted the breaded veal chop as it went by, beautifully plated with fresh salad crowning the meat. The dining area is small enough to allow amiable cross-table chats and the fellow whose chop it was said it was better than anything he has had in Manhattan.
Catering to clients’ dietary needs and tastes is no trouble. Vegetarian and vegan dishes are a natural part of Gennaro’s repertoire given his Neapolitan heritage. Fresh vegetables are front and center in so many dishes.
Currently Casa Gennaro offers seating for 35 but plans are in the works for outdoor seating for 20 by summer. The restaurant is available for private parties. The evening we were there a group of eight was comfortably seated in an alcove area. The front room, which retains the comfortable feel of the home’s original parlor, would be perfect for a small dinner party.
Do not expect the usual spaghetti and meatballs at Casa Gennaro — unless that is exactly what you want. When we complimented him on the creative menu, Gennaro smiled and said that he considers his dishes “dining with an attitude.”
Another extension of the Princeton restaurant scene — and another taste of Italy — can be had at Eno Terra, a part of the Terra Momo restaurant group that also includes Mediterra and Teresa Caffe. The restaurant, in a rustic building dating to 1860 that was once Fisk’s General Store, offers Italian-inspired cuisine with most ingredients sourced from local farms. It also has an extensive wine list and a full bar.
Eno Terra is open for lunch on weekdays and dinner seven days a week. Happy hour is Monday through Friday from 3:30 to 6 p.m. The lunch menu includes soups and salads ($11 to $15) with the option to add chicken, shrimp, salmon, or hanger steak for an additional charge. Entrees are $14 to $24 and include such options as the Eno Burger with onion marmellata, fontina, peppadew pepper, garlic aioli, $16; tagliatelle pasta with braised veal, maitake mushroom, swiss chard, rosemary, pecorino, $18; and salmon with French green lentil, butter braised cabbage, parsnip puree, and spiced honey glaze, $24.
Antipasti on the dinner menu and $11 to $17 and include salads, calamari, mussels, and meatballs. Pasta dishes are $19 to $25, and dinner entrees range from $22 for eggplant parmigiana to $55 for a dry-aged New York strip steak. Meat and cheese plates ($19 to $29) and vegetable side dishes ($8) are available at lunch and dinner. Wines by the glass are $9 to $20.
For a more casual taste of Italy, the go-to spot since 2011 has been Osteria Procaccini, which also has locations in Pennington, Crosswicks, and Ocean Grove. “Osteria,” the restaurant’s website explains, “is a modest Italian eatery; a place where a warm welcome from the family awaits each and every guest, a place where all food is comfort food because you feel comfortable being there. And Procaccini is just our last name. Our aim is to offer the most delicious home-style food with fresh, organic ingredients and the time-honored method of terra cotta oven cooking.”
Much like Gennaro Costabile, the Procaccini family has strong claims on the Princeton dining scene. They operate Trattoria Procaccini, on Nassau Street near the Whole Earth Center, as well as PJ’s Pancake house, which has a Kingston location in addition to the long-time Nassau Street spot. The Kingston iteration of PJ’s also offers a bakery.
Casa Gennaro, 4585 Route 27 Kingston. Dinner Thursday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m. Reservations strongly recommended. 609-683-1212.
Eno Terra, 4484 Route 27. Lunch Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Dinner Monday through Thursday, 5 to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m., Sunday 5 to 9 p.m. 609-497-1777. www.enoterra.com
Osteria Procaccini, 4428 Route 27. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday 4 to 9 p.m. 609-688-0007. www.osteriaprocaccini.com
PJ’s Kingston, 4581 Route 27. Open 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. 609-921-2778. www.pancakes.com