The Carrettino Restaurant

Large portions and family-style dining mark this Hillsborough spot.

By: Kathleen Spring

The Carrettino Restaurant

590 Amwell Rd., Neshanic Station

(908) 369-3663
Food: Fair

Cuisine: Classic Italian

Service: Good

Ambiance: Looks and feels very much like a condo

Prices: Moderate

Hours: Lunch: Tues.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; Dinner: Tues.-Thurs. 5-10 p.m., Fri. 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Sat. 5-11 p.m., Sun. 3-9 p.m. Closed Mondays.

Essentials: Major credit cards accepted, no liquor license (byo), no smoking, wheelchair accessible, reservations are accepted for parties of four and more and are suggested.

   NESHANIC STATION — Leaving The Carrettino Restaurant in Neshanic, the spouse and I took a wrong turn. Very soon we found ourselves deep in the country on a wonderfully narrow, winding road. Rainbow Hill Road climbed and then fell into a wide valley with a big, star-filled sky overhead and farmhouse lights in the far distance before nearly coming to a halt and turning sharply to the right through a stand of trees and over a one-lane bridge.
   Ah, the rich, unexpected contrasts that are New Jersey.
   The bonus road trip, silently observed by the largest deer I have ever seen, was all the more striking because The Carrettino Restaurant we had just left is the very epitome of suburban New Jersey. Sitting on a corner of a strip mall called The Corner on Beekman Road, a couple of miles from the busy intersection of Route 206 North and Amwell Road in Hillsborough, the Italian restaurant looks and feels very much like a condo.
   Decorated in mauve, gray and beige, and looking for all the world like a model house in a new housing development, the restaurant contains two rooms, one using a wall-length banquette and several upholstered booths for seating and the other a bit over-full of closely-spaced tables.
   On a weekday evening, The Carrettino was busy and its patrons — at least two large groups, several families and a number of couples, dining alone or with friends — seemed to be enjoying the friendly service and large portions.
   My spouse and I enjoyed the garlic bread ($2.95). It was perfectly broiled, hot and contained just the right amount of garlic. My seafood bisque soup ($2.95), tepid and containing no identifiable seafood, was a disappointment. The spouse enjoyed his mushrooms stuffed with crabmeat ($7.95), which were indeed tasty and could easily be shared by several diners.
   Other appetizers ranged in price from $6.95 to $13.95, with most clustered in the $6.95 to $7.95 range.
   Main courses are listed on three pages of the menu: one for pasta, one for veal and chicken dishes, and one for seafood. All the popular Italian dishes, including lasagna, linguini, baked ziti and veal parmigiana are included, along with broiled seafood platters and a number of specials.
   I ordered chicken Valdostana ($15.95), a chicken filet topped with prosciutto, mozzarella and mushrooms and sautéed in a Marsala sauce. My husband had veal parmigiana ($14.95). Most entrees are priced from $13.95 to $16.95, with broiled seafood platters going up to $22.95. Pasta dishes are less expensive, starting at $8.95.
   Entrées come with salad and a side dish of pasta. The salad was fresh, but was a pretty slapdash affair. There was one chunk of cucumber, a wedge of tomato and a few strands of purple cabbage on top of iceberg lettuce, served with a choice of dressings.
   My chicken was tender and topped with a generous serving of excellent mushrooms. Now, at an average of about five drinks a decade, I am not much of a drinker, but I do think that a Marsala dish should taste at least vaguely of Marsala wine. This chicken did not at all. It sat in a dispirited brown sauce that had little flavor of any sort.
   On the other hand, the spouse’s veal parmigiana in a traditional tomato sauce was flavorful. Both dishes were attractive, and portions were substantial.
   My husband liked the pasta — a little bowl of linguine in a tomato sauce — commenting that it was not at all acidic. I thought the side dish was undistinguished, with little flavor.
   We asked our waitress if there were any light choices on the dessert menu. She seemed a little thrown by the question, but did come up with a couple of excellent suggestions. I had a chocolate mousse cake that was both light and flavorful. Its mousse filling was encased in a thin crust of lightly iced chocolate cake. My husband chose tortoni, and, though he is not much of a dessert eater, he thoroughly enjoyed it.
   By the time that we were finishing our meal, diners at the closely spaced tables had begun talking to one another. It was delightful to hear connections being made as they discovered common friends and interests. Two groups talking about changes they have observed in retailing, moved on to the advantages of continuing education, work outside of the home for mature women and the joys of world travel. A third group, exiting the restaurant, stopped to join in the conversation.
   The setting may have screamed suburban strip mall, but the conversation quickly revealed a warm, open, urbane spirit. Ah, New Jersey!