Recently, I have had the opportunity to dine at Catherine Lombardi for dinner. An Italian restaurant that is located in New Brunswick, NJ, Catherine Lombardi boasts an expansive menu, and remains true to the idea of a multiple-course meal (their menu can be found here). Their selection of drinks are even larger than their actual menu, with a cocktail list that spans several pages on its own.
One of the first things that you notice upon arriving at the restaurant is the location. It is notably located on the second floor, with its sister restaurant, Stage Left, located just underneath. The State Theater of NJ is just beside these two restaurants, and attributes to the name of the Stage Left restaurant. The entrance is small; a single door is the only entry/exit to the restaurant, and it is difficult to differentiate as a door to Catherine Lombardi instead of Stage Left. Upon entering, there are signs to direct you to the elevator that takes you up to Catherine Lombardi itself. The interior is bland up to this point. There is nothing special about the decor leading up to, or in the elevator.
The doors of the elevator open to an open area, with a part of the dining area to your right, and the coat/reservation check to your left. I arrived with my dinner partner approximately 10 minutes before the reserved time, and after checking in our coats, were seated immediately. As we walked through the restaurant, there were several things I consciously took note of. Customers are expected (and evidently cooperative) to dress in a certain manner, described by OpenTable as “casual smart.” For those of you unaware, this means clothing that is neat and inoffensive, while remaining informal. This means no mid-riffs, sneakers, or open-toed shoes, ladies and gents! The ambiance of Catherine Lombardi is classy yet relaxed. The decor gives a sense of warmth; the restaurant is a conservative red, with a dim lighting and a fireplace to boot. The bar for the restaurant is in a section that is far away enough to not take away from the dining experience, which is always a plus.
We were seated somewhat close to the fireplace, without an actual view of it. Albeit a small corner, it was cozy and granted us a view of the outdoors, although the surrounding area is nothing special. Notably, our table of two was very close to another table of four, which I assume is often used to seat a group of 6 should the situation require. There is a slight discrepancy in my conceived notions of entering the restaurant and the moment we were seated. It is actually much noisier than one would expect of a restaurant this upscale, although it does by no means make it trashy. I must admit, however, that it there were times where it was difficult to hear my company over the collective noise in the restaurant.
A topic I would really like to touch on about this restaurant is the staff. The entire visible staff is dressed just as, if not better, than the customers. Everyone from the hostess to the waiter are dressed in full suits, complete with ties. Trust me, if you are not dressed to impress, you will feel extremely out of place. I would like to mention that the staff is very attentive, and adamant about making your dining experience at Catherine Lombardi a treat. Our waiter was extremely knowledgeable about any questions we had about the menu. He was able to describe all of the dishes well, and was able to make recommendations for wine based off our orders. Within minutes, we came to the decision of very garlic bread as our accompaniment, parmgiano-reggiano, sopressata, and eggplant capponata as our cold antipasti, shrimp scampi over basil fettuccine and tortelloni as our primo (we decided to skip a secondo), and later a zabaglione with fruit as our dessert. I was recommended a white wine to compliment my primo (unfortunately, I forgot which), and my dinner partner settled with water.
The garlic bread was the first to come out, and the restaurant was very quick about it. According to users on Yelp, it is a very popular item of the restaurant, and I can see why. Served on a square metal basket with a linen napkin between the bread and the basket, the garlic bread is plated well. Contrary to my long-held belief that bread is always served by simply throwing them in a basket, these came out plated neatly and organized. You can tell from the texture of the bread that it is a higher quality, and possibly even baked inside the restaurant. Akin to the item’s name, it was very garlicky, but was not overpowering. There is a good balance between butter, garlic, and bread, where one ingredient does not upset the other. Bread was hot upon arriving at the table; I recommend you do not grab for them immediately. I agree with the majority that the bread is a great item on their menu, and should not be overlooked simply by the commonality of garlic bread in Italian restaurants.
Our cold antipasti course was served as we were about 3/4 of the way finished with the bread. Our three selections (parmgiano-reggiano, sopressata, and eggplant capponata) were served on three separate, triangular dishes, all atop one single plate. The eggplant and cheese were diced; they were small enough to eat without cutting, but big enough where it was not difficult to pick them up. The cheese was aged well and served at room temperature- the taste was quite strong and sharp, but sophisticated. It is what one would expect from cheese at a upscale restaurant that is used as a dish, rather than an ingredient. The eggplant caponata was served cold with a nice, very slightly acidic sauce. The eggplant was cooked soft, and contrasted against the hard texture of the cheese well. I did have a slight issue with the sopressata, however. It was notably sliced, but not cut into smaller pieces. It was the one item in the antipasti that called for the use of a knife in order to eat. Although not something to make a fuss over, it is definitely something that breaks the continuity that the two other items have built. The sopressata was simply dry salami. There was nothing special about this particular portion of the dish, but nothing wrong about it either.
The staff was prompt in clearing our table as we finished the dishes. Like most upscale restaurants, the waiter even clears the table of crumbs to set things up for the primary course, or in this case, the primo. The dishes came out simultaneously, and I noted that the staff knew where each dish was to go. They did not need to ask. Definitely a bonus when it comes to structure and knowledge of the overall staff. The shrimp scampi over basil fettuccine was plated as expected. The shrimp were spread evenly over the basil fettuccine, which was spread out nicely across the plate. One thing I would have expected was the so-called “spiral” that many upscale restaurants execute when plating their fettuccine/linguine dishes. The tortelloni totaled six, and were placed in a circular formation, with the marinara sauce in the middle, and the white sauce on the entire bottom of the plate. At the arrival of our dishes, we were offered fresh grated cheese, which we both graciously accepted. Their grating of the cheese over your food is done at the table. Don’t worry, it’s sanitary. The shrimp scampi over basil fettuccine is what I had expected, and what you would expect from most dishes that have “shrimp scampi” in the name. I do, however, would like to compliment the restaurant on the use of basil fettuccine. Although this would have otherwise been a very basic dish, the use of basil fettuccine adds a certain color and flavor that is not achievable using regular noodles. The addition of the fresh grated cheese was also critical in making the taste go from average to delicious. Highly recommended that you take them up on the offer. Do not be afraid to ask them what wine they would recommend for your meal; they are knowledgeable on their entire menu, and will be able to suggest you a wine in your price range to compliment your order. As far as the tortelloni goes, they had me at the plating. Plated well, with convenience in accessing the marinara while sitting in the bolognese sauce, the tortelloni had a soft yet thick shell, with a very creamy filling. I would recommend the tortelloni over the shrimp scampi dish.
Dessert was zabaglione, a custard-based Italian dish. As suggested by the custard ingredient, it is very creamy, like many other Italian deserts. The dessert was served with blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries. AS my company for the night was allergic to tree fruit (apples, pears, etc.), there were some fruit missing. The fruit is mixed in with the zabaglione, so it can be eaten as presented. The custard had a very slight hint of citrus, which leads me to believe the custard was orange based. If you like traditional creamy desserts, this is the way to go.
(I apologize for the
All in all, I would recommend Catherine Lombardi. The restaurant has nice decor that balances dim lighting with atmosphere really well (some upscale restaurants seem to overdo the dimming of lights). From my dining experience, their food is delicious, and their service is definitely top notch. The friendlier you are to the staff, the more attentive they will be to you (this is a golden rule to eating outside, ladies and gents). Make this place one of your destinations should you be around the New Brunswick area!