In the movie Field of Dreams, a memorable line was “If you believe the impossible, the incredible can come true.” More than 20 years ago, three Italian boys from the Jersey Shore had a dream to dominate their local little league division and they did. In 2008, the three, now young men, returned to their roots to fulfill another dream ~ to rule the restaurant scene on the Jersey Shore. In 2008, celebrated chef Matthew Zappoli, his brother Paul and close friend Michael Cacciuttolo purchased Al Piccolo Forno in Long Branch and re-opened it as Tre Amici (three friends) al piccolo forno. In the past two years, Tre Amici has become one of the most popular and highly rated restaurants in the shore’s restaurant scene, despite tough competition.
The ambiance of Tre Amici is reminiscent of dining in a restaurant in Rome or Florence with deep terra cotta walls, formal table service and romantic lighting. But, the truth is in the pudding, in this case, the magic that Matthew wields in the kitchen. All his pastas are homemade with a passion he learned as a young boy in his mother’s kitchen. His menu reflects his Italian heritage of growing up in a home where everyone gathering around the family dinner table was the highlight of the day.
Dinner started with an amuse bouche (small bite) of delicious bruschetta with fresh tomatoes, mozzarella and basil from Matthew’s garden off the kitchen. For appetizers, we had Crab-stuffed Shrimp Scampi served with micro-greens in a cognac-shrimp reduction. The abundant portion of delicate crab was a pleasant textural contrast to the crunchiness of the jumbo butterflied shrimp. My guest had Mozzarella en Corrozza, perfectly melted mozzarella enveloped in a crispy crust serve on a pond of fresh marinara sauce and topped with a sprig of basil ~ so divine, I could have made an entire meal of just this appetizer.
Chef Zappoli wanted us to try his homemade pastas so he presented an extra course of Gnocchi Sorrentina, homemade potato gnocchi (which I had the pleasure of watching him make earlier in the day), in a pomodoro sauce with mozzarella, fresh pecorino and basil, and Fettuccini Tartufo with a blend of morels, cremini and shiitake mushrooms in a truffle-sherry cream sauce. The gnocchi was so fresh, it absolutely melted in your mouth and how could Chef have known I have an incredible weakness for mushrooms? The blend of woody and silky mushrooms was absolutely to die for and was perfectly enhanced with a hint of the truffle’s earthiness and sherry sweetness in the light, rich cream sauce.
Now I knew I was in trouble, as we still had two courses to go and I’m not a big eater, yet I couldn’t stop eating Matthew’s incredibly succulent and savory dishes. Even my guest, who has a huge appetite, was beginning to waiver. But forge on we did, not wanting to miss one iota of the Chef’s talented preparations.
Our entrees were the evening’s special, Sautéed Soft-shell Crab coated with Arborio rice served with wilted spinach, pencil-thin asparagus in a white wine, tomato, caper and lemon sauce and Long Island Duck served Two Ways. The soft-shell crab dusted with the rice coating was cooked to absolute crispy perfection. The light wine and tomato sauce, slightly tangy with the zest of the capers and lemon perfectly complemented the crab and added the exact portion of flavor to the spinach and asparagus. The duck was a roasted breast and confit leg served with lavender jasmine rice and blackberry gastrique, a French-inspired sauce that was evenly balanced with the sweetness of the blackberry and tartness of vinegar. The duck breast was roasted to juicy tenderness blanketed with the crackling skin, the confit cured and poached in it own fat was meltingly tender and a wonderful example of how highly skilled the Chef is at presenting traditional dishes that have a high level of difficulty in preparing.
Our server, Ashley, was right on top of every dish, promptly answering any questions we had about the ingredients and making sure our every need was met with a cheery response. And, now on to dessert!
Aaah, dessert ~ could we do take out for a later time? No, Chef Matthew came over to our table to see how our dinner had been so far and we couldn’t say no to him as dessert was the culminating taste, the finale to a fantastic meal. So we mustered on treading lightly. My guest had a dessert new to me ~ Affugato, vanilla ice cream, served with a demitasse of espresso to pour over the ice cream. It was a WOW moment of hot, cold, sweet and bitter all infusing on your palate at one time. I opted for the classic crème brûlée ~ inwardly challenging Matthew to best mine ~he did ~ the custard was silky smooth, soft and touched with Tahitian vanilla, while the paper thin crust of raw sugar was burnt to just the exact degree of caramelization.
A graduate of Middletown High School North, Matthew went on to the prestigious Culinary Institute of America (CIA), graduating with honors in 1998. After graduating, he went to New York to work under, culinary master chef Charlie Palmer at Aureole. He was selected by Palmer to become Sous Chef at Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen in Sonoma. On his way west, he trained at the Aureole outpost in Las Vegas. There, he so impressed Palmer and his staff, that they asked him to stay on where he quickly became Executive Sous Chef. Eventually, he moved on to California where Sami Ledeki discovered him and hired him as Executive Chef for Ledeki’s restaurant Fresh. Zappoli yearning to return to his roots returned in 2004 where he appeared as a featured chef at the renowned .James Beard House. Bon Appètit named him one of “Five Chefs to Watch” in 2005. That same year he was recognized by Restaurant Hospitality magazine as a “Rising Star Chef.” In 2009, he won the championship on the popular Food Network show, Chopped. For Chef Matthew Zappoli, his star has risen and Tre Amici exemplies the fruits of his labor. Paraphrasing another famous line from Field of Dreams, “If you built it, they will come,” Chef Matthew has built it and the people keep coming.
Tre Amici, 628 Ocean Avenue, Long Branch, (732)571-8922 is BYOB. For further information, visit the website www.treamicinj.com.