There’s plenty of fine, authentic Italian restaurants that represent the various regions of Italy in the city, suburbs, and also throughout South Jersey. We are fans of Italian cuisine, but it’s not our go-to or first choice when considering dining out either by ourselves or with friends. But when our friend Patti suggested that we check out ITA 101, a BYOB in Medford, our interest was piqued. Mostly because it’s off the beaten path for us, but also because it is getting great reviews.
We were not able to make early reservations due to some procrastination; so we had to take 8:45PM on Friday night. When we first arrived, the restaurant was in full swing and continued so well into our meal. A very good sign. Clearly, the word is already out about this new restaurant. My live Instagramming of our meal confirmed this as many chimed in they had already been there and were impressed.
You can read more about Owner Tony Sparacio, Chef-Owner Kevin Maher, and General Manager Paola Balsamo – here, here, and here. Basically, it’s a meeting of the culinary Italian minds. Which can mean only one thing — the food is amazing!
The culinary tour of Italy includes special menus depending on the day of the week. Every Tuesday and Wednesday, at just $35/person, you can order from an ever changing 5 Course Tasting Menu created by the chef that week. On Thursday, again at just $35/person, Chef Kevin celebrates a seasonal ingredient they choose that week; typically something found at one of the local farmers markets or farms, and they spotlight it on the Sagre Italiane Menu. Sagre, in Italian, means “festival” or “feast.” For example, last week’s Sagre featured Fava Beans, which is currently in season.
Then, on the weekends, they pay homage to a particular region of Italy on the Weekend Italian Regional Menu. This past week’s region was the lesser known Basilicata region, which is the “in-step” of the boot of Italy. Our friend Patti remarked that her grandfather was from this region, so it felt karmic that ITA was featuring the region that evening. Grilled octopus was the featured protein. While I like octopus, I was not particularly in the mood for it that evening and neither were our friends.
So, we all decided to order off the Spring Daily Menu as an introduction. Here we go….
Hubby & I both had a half portion of the Insalata Mista (baby greens topped with walnuts, orange slices, cranberries and shaved pecorino cheese with an orange vinaigrette). The ingredients are so very fresh and the vinaigrette was sweet and tangy, but not overly so. I’m not usually one for oranges on salads, but really enjoyed this salad immensely. Our friends had the Insalata Romana salad (baby romaine hearts served with gorgonzola cheese and grape tomatoes with a pancetta glaze vinaigrette). We forgot to take a picture, but they both were very pleased with them.
Our second course was a shared plate of Mozzarella Fresca con Prosciutto san Daniele & Verdure. They had run out of house-made fresh mozzarella so it was replaced with a comparable grilled Scamorza; quite similar to mozzarella in that it is a semi-soft cow’s milk cheese. It holds up to pan frying or grilling really well giving it a nice dark crust on the outside, and smooth and creamy inside. The combination of the grilled Scamorza, sweet and supple San Daniele prosciutto and grilled asparagus was absolutely wonderful. A noteworthy Antipasti for sure.
For my main course, I went with the full portion of Pappardelle con Ragu di Cinghiale (handmade pappardelle pasta tossed with a slow cooked wild boar ragu); a classic recipe from Tuscany. I’m a sucker for fresh pasta, and pappardelle is one of my all-time favorites. I am in love with thick, large noodles. This is the perfect pasta to pair with hearty wild boar ragu.
I’ve had this classic dish many times at Italian restaurants. I’m proud to say Chef Kevin more than did it justice. The noodles were perfect; superbly toothsome. The kind that sticks to your teeth a little. I love that kind. The wild boar was properly seasoned and tender because it had been slow-cooked, which makes it infinitely more flavorful. I really wanted to eat the whole plate, but I was only able to eat a little more than half of it, which was more than I should have eaten! Frankly, it’s one of those dishes where your brain tells you to stop, but you just keep going because it’s so damn delicious. Totally worth $24 for the amount that you get.
At my suggestion, hubby ordered Tagliolini allo Scoglio (handmade tagliatelle pasta served with sautéed prawns, mussels and clams in a garlic marinara sauce). Essentially, spaghetti with seafood. He was very glad I pushed him in this direction because it was literally brimming with shellfish (a favorite of his). They do not skimp in that department. At $24, you really do get your money’s worth of crustaceans and molluscs.
The menu says that the marinara sauce is spicy, but it’s on the mild side of spicy. So don’t fear this dish if you’re not a fan of “spicy hot” food. This will not blow your head off. Later, I discovered that this dish, which originates from the Liguria coastal area of northwestern Italy, made Peter Genevese’s list of 50 Jersey Foods to Try Before You Die on NJ.com. A definite must try for sure.
If you are a fan of simple, rustic Italian dishes, the Spaghetti alla Chitarra con Cacio & Pepe (handmade spaghetti tossed with a creamy grated Pecorino Romano cheese and fresh ground black pepper). It is commonly known simply as Cacio e Pepe. This Roman favorite is a true example of how a minimalist recipe, made with just a few ingredients, can become incredible. Patti remarked how creamy and delicious it was. She ordered a half portion at a very affordable price of $10.
Rounding out our tour of Italy’s pasta was our friend Bill’s Malfadine Trapanese (handmade malfadine pasta tossed with roasted pine nuts, roasted grape tomatoes and our housemade pesto sauce); a specialty from Sicily. This was my 2nd favorite dish of the night next to my pappardelle. Again the pasta is very toothsome and has lots of chew to it. The pesto sauce was off-the-charts flavorful, it was sweet and herbacous at the same time. He also ordered a half portion at the very economical $10.
We were all pretty full at this point, but “When in Rome…” Patti and I were determined to try some dessert. We both chose the Rhubarb Panna Cotta.
This petite and luscious dessert was executed flawlessly. It had the perfect wobble you would expect in a good and slightly sweet panna cotta. A fabulous ending to an amazing dinner that took us on a grand tour of Italian cuisine.
BUT, we weren’t done yet! GM Paola Balsamo insisted that we try the tiramisu which is made at your table in front of your very eyes. We documented the amazingly fun process of them making the tiramisu in the following pictures.
Step 1 of Tiramisu: Ladyfingers
Step 2 of Tiramisu: Pour Espresso over Ladyfingers
Step 3 of Tiramisu: Spoon Fresh Made Mascarpone Over Espresso Soaked Ladyfingers
Step 4: Sprinkle Cocoa Over Mascarpone Covered Espresso-Soaked Ladyfingers
Step 5 of Tiramisu: Pour More Espresso… viola Tiramisu!
So, we got dinner AND a show! The tiramisu was outstanding. I mean, how could it not be?
If you’re looking for a new Italian restaurant, you simply need to go to ITA 101 at 20 S. Main Street in Medford. It’s one of the many new reasons to give Medford a closer look. Be sure to make reservations in advance or you may not be able to get in early.
In addition to ITA 101, other newbies in Medford include The Pop Shop, Harvest Coffee Roastery, and Lower Forge Brewing. Just some of the reasons to visit this charming town in South Jersey.