Good food at good prices carries the day in Crosswicks.
By: Pat Tanner
Red Star Café
CROSSWICKS Quietly tucked away off Route 130 near Bordentown is the sleepy little village of Crosswicks. If you find yourself nearby, it is worth a detour for its many well-preserved and maintained colonial and federal style homes, its Friends meeting house and even its library, which was incorporated in 1817 and is situated in an old firehouse.
If you find yourself in the mood for good Italian food while there, the Red Star Café fills the bill nicely. Just don’t expect ambiance of anything other than the most casual of pizza places. A television set sits perched above the 10 tables, which are covered with flimsy vinyl topped by paper place mats.
One of the few decorative touches is the wooden trellis strewn with cloth roses that separates the eating area from the pizza and pasta-making center and take-out counter. Customers who bring wine to this b.y.o. place will be given wine glasses and presented with a wine opener (perfectly serviceable), but don’t expect the wine to be opened for you. "Casual" extends to the service, as well.
The Red Star Café does a lot of business in take-out tomato pies, and for good reason. They offer regular and Sicilian style, pan pies and gourmet pies, personal pizzas and full-size pies. The ones we watched being carried out or taken to nearby tables looked wonderful and, like the café’s sandwiches, were huge and generously filled and/or topped.
The café’s more ambitious offerings, which include an extensive list of pasta, chicken, veal and seafood dishes, are, for the most part, surprisingly good. Take, for instance, penne alla Maria with chicken ($10). This special contained good quality pasta, cooked al dente, with a light sauce of fresh tomatoes, sautéed mushrooms and garlic. The chicken, pieces of flattened breast, were tender, flavorful and still moist inside. Also well executed was shrimp scampi ($12), which was not too garlicky or greasy and featured lots of large, succulent shrimp over mounds of linguine. During the week, most of the seafood dishes feature shrimp, but fish specials are offered every weekend. Portions on everything were substantial, which makes the café’s prices more than reasonable.
Not quite as successful was a dish of veal Ravenna ($12). Here, sitting over more of the same good linguine, were slabs of veal scaloppini sautéed in oil with garlic and lots of fresh spinach. So far so good. But the whole thing was encased in a thick layer of melted mozzarella, which completely overwhelmed the dish, making it heavy and oily.
Appetizers had the same batting average with our group: we liked two-out-of-three. Simple bruschetta topped with bits of tomato and lots of garlic was superior to most, if you like garlic. Six large slabs at $3 made the bruschetta a terrific buy that was easily shared by three people. An order of fried, breaded calamari ($5.75) was outstanding tender, flavorful and, again, very generous. Our request for tomato sauce for dipping was cheerfully accommodated, but the sauce proved a disappointment. It disappointed in a dish of mussels marinara ($3.10) as well.
It was hard to reconcile the fine entrees with their better-than-average ingredients and execution with other aspects of dining here. Complimentary dinner salads were average no surprise there. But while two dressing choices balsamic vinaigrette and blue cheese came in little cups on the side, an order of Caesar dressing came in its original plastic packet. Yet at the end of the meal we were served demitasses of excellent Lavazza espresso, properly made with a lovely crema and properly served with a twist of lemon.
Desserts here are limited and not memorable. Cheesecake was still frozen in the center and chocolate peanut cake had an unappetizing layer of fake frozen cream (or so one of my companions, an expert in these matters, declared). Each dessert was a mere $1.95.
The Red Star Café is the fourth such enterprise in the stable of husband-and-wife team Tony and Maria Bua, who have been in the business for more than 25 years. They certainly know how to serve good food at good prices, but I’d be willing to pay more if the café’s ambiance were more in tune with that of quaint, charming, cozy Crosswicks.