It isn’t always that my spontaneous dinner choices are some of my more impressive ones. Recently, spontaneity was my friend when I unassumingly walked into this cozy BYO. Corbo & Sons Osteria in Shrewsbury, NJ is the real deal.
Let’s start with the basics. If anything, Corbo & Sons is a sleek place to dine at— its cool, concrete floors juxtaposed with green foliage sporadically placed throughout the space and basket lamps hanging from the ceiling. A pasta bar with a marbled white surface and a grand espresso machine behind it is placed dead center. The wooden tables decorate the rest of the dining room. Outside, the building is adorned with brick walls and black awnings. The double white doors welcome you inside.
A second location by the same name lives in Holmdel’s Bell Works— made famous by the uber popular TV show, “Severance”. The menu here is smaller; consisting of uncomplicated appetizers and pizzas. Today, I just want to focus on the stand-alone spot in Shrewsbury.
Being an osteria— or a simple and inexpensive Italian restaurant— Corbo & Sons focuses on straight-forward pastas, pizzas and meat entrees. The menu is separated into three sections: antipasti (appetizers), primi (pastas) and secondi (entrees). I was excited, but nervous to order. This is the style of food I know best. It is also the style I enjoy more than anything else. I hate to say it, but when it comes to pasta, I can be a harsh critic. Allow me to back up, though.
Executive Chef, Salvatore Capobianco and Chef/Owner Richard Corbo combine their culinary geniusness in this effortless display of comforting, Italian cuisine. Capobianco brings Sicilian-American heritage to the table, while Corbo brings a lifetime of experience in Florence and Manhattan’s best restaurants. I was more than ready to see if the food would live up to the hype.
For starters, or antipasti, I reveled in a truly special dish. Jersey Girl ricotta cheese, peak Larchmont Farm peaches, poppy seeds and prosciutto crisp. The ricotta, which I enjoyed in three other dishes during my time here, is some of the best I have ever had. Jersey Girl is a local cheese producer and their ricotta, along with all of their products, is something that is truly special. Long gone are the days of jelly-like ricotta, or “pot cheese” as my family would call it despite never making it from scratch, reluctantly scooped out of a quart container labeled “Polly-O.” Ricotta should be fluffy and taste of farm fresh milk. Additionally, it is best left to shine with a simple application. Chef Salvatore Capobianco places a mound of it on a plate and makes a crater in the center which is then filled with honey and fresh peaches. Grilled bread is used to scoop everything up. This dish screamed summer in my face. Better yet, it was perfectly done. The pristine ingredients were allowed to luster in their best light— something I find to be a dwindling lost art.
For a middle course, I couldn’t choose between pasta or pizza. So, I went with both. A summer squash pizza consisting of, well, summer squash from Flaim Farm and their blossoms, guanciale (cured pork jowl), lemon and last but not least, Jersey Girl Ricotta. I almost always prefer sauced pizza— that is pizza with tomato sauce. However, once in a while I’ll make an exception. This was the perfect pizza to articulate a summer in Jersey. First of all, the crust was notably good. A slight funk from fermentation, a pleasant amount of salt and good chew on the exterior. I found myself tearing the crust open to admire the air pockets and dough structure right at the table. The produce is left simple once again. Creamy ricotta and fresh squash are a no-brainer, but the simple burst of acidity from lemon in contrast with the fatty, rich pork jowl was what tied everything together. It was simple, yet complex. Genius, yet obvious. Like the starter before it, I was happy to be met with such a pleasant dish.
Now, my favorite food group: pasta. I ordered corn ravioli to keep with the summer in Jersey theme I had going. Impressed would be an understatement. Fresh pasta is filled to the brim with a mixture of corn and mascarpone cheese. Six of the delectable pillows are tossed in an emulsified butter sauce that is dotted with fresh New Jersey corn, funghi misti (mixed mushrooms), splatters of herb oil and a chiffonade of scallion. Cutting into the ravioli reveals the sweet, corn filling; which is harmonized by earthy mushrooms. The filling is void of lumps— something that could potentially ruin a filled pasta for me. It was clear that Capobianco knew his pasta.
Not only was this dish divine, but it brought me back to my time working at Lupa Osteria Romana in Manhattan’s West Village. Along with being one of the best places to eat simple and fulfilling food, it is also the place where I learned everything I know about pasta. Lupa was the first place I ever saw corn in pasta and today, it remains my favorite theme for a pasta dish in the summer. In my eyes, it is the perfect ingredient to base an idea around.
It wasn’t long after finishing my pasta that the entree arrived at the table. Yell at me all you want, but I ordered the chicken— as I so often do when dining at restaurants I deem to be worthy. Chicken, to me, is one of the most delicious proteins when prepared correctly. If not, it can be a miserable experience. This airline chicken breast was simply seasoned with salt and pan roasted skin side down. Broccolini accompanied it as a sidekick and together, they sat atop a bed of pancetta braised black lentils. Tart red sorrel and a bay leaf flavored chicken jus were showered on top of the dish. Cutting through the shard of crispy skin revealed a firm and moist flesh. This chicken was perfectly cooked. The lentils, which have become one of my favorite legumes, were tender and extremely layered in flavor. This was a perfect example of why I always order chicken— when a competent chef is preparing it, there is nothing better.
For dessert, a brightly flavored Sicillian cheesecake once again made with our favorite Jersey Girl ricotta. Raspberry jam and whipped cream finished off this knockout of a sweet treat. Paired with a double espresso, it was the perfect nightcap. I was an amaro and a cigarette away from being transported to the streets of Sicily.
Food is best when left to bask in its simplicity, or at least that’s how I have always felt. When we allow the best ingredients to sing their own song, we unlock the secret to great fare. Sure, I love modern technique and have spent hundreds of hours studying gastronomy and the greats at portraying it. But, sometimes, I just want to eat something that doesn’t make me think so much. Plain and simple. Corbo & Sons Osteria in Shrewsbury, NJ delivered exactly what I needed on a Saturday evening with no set-in-stone dinner plans. Chef Capobianco put forth an impressive display of culinary mastermind and I will be back in the near future to see what the coming seasons bring to his menu.