A few years ago, a nonprofit group called the American Italian Defense Association sued Time Warner Entertainment, parent company of HBO, in Illinois state court, claiming that The Sopranos ran afoul of the state constitution's "Individual Dignity" clause, which holds that "communications that portray criminality, depravity or lack of virtue in...[a] group of persons by reason of or by reference to religious, racial, ethnic, national or regional affiliation are condemned." This bit of litigation, which was just one of many stinks being raised at the time about the show's representation of Italian-Americans, was summarily tossed out.
If you want to nitpick about depravity and lack of virtue in television's depiction of Italian-Americans, how about the commercials for the Olive Garden? If my immigrant Poppy were alive today and I celebrated his 95th birthday by hauling him to some all-you-can-eat deal featuring rubber chicken and Provel posing as parmigiana, served by a blond high-schooler who pronounced manicotti phonetically, I'd be cut out of his inheritance. When you're I-tai, there are ways of doing things, especially when it comes to food. Pasta, for instance, is a made-up yuppie word; it's macaroni, no matter what shape or length it is. Likewise, we never sat around at an Italian wedding waiting for our "Italian wedding soup" to arrive. That soup was called escarole, and we ate it as often as the relatives had us over for Sunday dinner.
Your Italian family could live down the street from my Italian family, and your Sunday dinner could look little like my Sunday dinner, and that was fine. For more sacred than Italian cuisine as a whole were the individual recipes that got passed down through the generations, mostly between mothers and daughters. (My mother's Irish and a terrible cook. The only thing I can recall her mom teaching her to make was Jell-O mold.)
The menu at the recently opened Bellaluna abounds with what are clearly Mama's recipes. But that's just one reason it so reminds me of home -- which is, in fact, the very New Jersey county in which The Sopranos is set. For starters, my family would never see the irony in calling a strip-mall restaurant classy or upscale. To be fair, much like Blue Water Grill down the road, Bellaluna pulls off a distinctive, refined ambiance despite its oh-so-suburban environs. The carpeted, ecru interior, its entranceway dominated by a black grand piano, feels very nouveau-luxe. The décor equivalent of a cashmere sweater studded with sequins is the best way I can describe it. Perched at the door is Marlene, your hostess for the evening and the matron of this Trupiano family business. I found myself calling her "hon" and warmly patting her forearm before I'd even taken off my coat. She and my Aunt Marie would really hit it off.
Between the Trupiano bloodlines and those of Peppe Profeta, Bellaluna's chef (formerly of Gian-Peppe's on the Hill), regional Italian cooking is represented from the boot heel on up. More than 65 menu items are divided into a dizzying number of categories. Hot, cold and pasta appetizers (further subgrouped into tomato base, cream base and broth base) must be considered before you even get to the salad course or i secondi, the main course. An additional page of entrées, entitled "Grand Specialties," offers ridiculously excessive -- and often ridiculously expensive -- portions of osso buco, lamb chops, Dover sole and lobster tail. Bellaluna doesn't serve toasted ravioli at dinner, only at lunch. In this town, that's saying a lot.
Despite that singular concession to local palates, the menu mostly runs to white-collar, big-ticket Italian staples, sometimes dressed up with out-of-the ordinary touches and always expertly prepared. The porterhouse steak, bistecca alla Toscana, is literally the largest cut of meat I've seen served to just one person, seasoned simply with little more than salt and pepper. The house salad di Peppe is similarly straightforward and unfussy, though I loved the inclusion of hearts of palm -- a truly home-style Italian-American touch. Spaghetti alla carbonara comes bathed in a clingy, glorious cream sauce (richer than is customary, by Profeta's own admission) which terrifically compensates for the too-few bits of duck prosciutto (which are themselves a rejiggering of tradition, subbing for the usual pancetta). A whole quail egg sits atop, waiting for the diner to break it open and mix in its raw yolk -- a touch of culinary showiness that works better in theory than in practice, given the size of a quail's egg. An entrée of linguine pescatore, dubbed a "mixed seafood fantasy," boasts savory bites of clam, lobster, shrimp and salmon, even if the logistics of actually consuming the dish -- constantly picking up and putting down different utensils to extract meat from shells -- interferes with the fantasy part.
Wines and desserts, surprisingly, stray from Italian tradition. Among the 50 or so bottles of red and white, fewer than half come from the motherland. A "Captain's List" of top-shelf bottles, including a 1999 Opus One for $195 and a 2000 Bryant cabernet for $500, is available for bottomless wallets. Don't let those prices give you the wrong idea, though: Bellaluna's entire list features remarkably reasonable markups. As for the desserts, only one out of the half-dozen offered, the cannoli, truly embodies the restaurant's ethnicity. To see panna cotta on this dessert list (or any local dessert list, for that matter) would make my heart sing -- but complaining is futile when set against a raspberry cheesecake this creamy, an apple financier this light and flaky or a Baileys bomb this sinful. (All the desserts are also available at the Trupianos' next-door sister, the Bubble Room; see Side Dish.)
Before Bellaluna, I'd never heard of arancinetti, risotto spheres. They're actually just Sicilian street food, according to Profeta: big balls of risotto with a meat-and-tomato stuffing, often fried up and sold in little corner shacks. The carbohydrate-fueled euphoria that swept over me upon my first bite of these morsels rendered me near-infantile. It was like the mother ship calling my tummy home. More than plain old bread, or the pasta from any other restaurant of recent memory, these satisfied and satiated me down to my very last drop of blood. I am so glad I am Italian.