Food is romantic. It’s about love and family and flavors. Jim and I long ago abandoned chain restaurants and began eating out with purpose – to find good food in comfortable environments that we would want to go back to time and again. Zeppoli Collingswood was like being in Sicily, except there was no family charm that is a signature of any Italian dining experience. This restaurant had so much potential in that area.
This tiny restaurant (it has about 11 tables, with a dining capacity of 35) is all about big flavors, to be sure. We waited literally months to find a table at Zeppoli, dining at numerous other Collingswood restaurants in between. We had it hyped up on our minds by the time our anniversary dinner rolled around, and that may have been to the detriment of the restaurant itself. We expected an experience, but what we got was a huge let down.
The chef, Joey Baldino, has captured the essence of Sicily. The emphasis here is on the flavors that remind you of family and home. Fresh pastas with incredible sauces, antipasto that was the best I have ever enjoyed, and the emphasis on fresh seafood remind me of dinners in Italy with my family. I had the pasta special for the evening, a potato gnocchi in a lamb ragout, which I could have licked from the plate. My fisherman’s stew had perfectly prepared calamari, and the freshest clams and mussels I think you could get this side of the beach. The sardines, a dish we have never seen outside of Italy, were perfectly grilled, seasoned with an expert and knowing hand, and absolutely amazing. Even the breadbasket, with an onion tart type of bread and a Jersey original tomato pie, was well thought out, perfectly executed, and delicious in every morsel.
But dining is an experience. There is more than just food to a dining experience. You want to be comfortable. You want to have pleasant conversation. You want there to be warmth from your server. Those are the things we were missing at Zeppoli. We were there for our 26th anniversary dinner. I commented to my husband that if it had been our first date, it would have been too awkward to have a second. We had minimal conversation, because we couldn’t hear each other. I mentioned when we left that if that antipasto had been served to me at a different restaurant, I would have been raving about it as I enjoyed it, but the truth was, Jim couldn’t hear me, so I just sat quietly. Our table butted right up against another table, and every time the man in the end seat of that table leaned back in his chair, he tipped our bread basket. I was at first glad he didn’t have long hair, because the entire time, it would have been right in the basket, but at the same time, the only alternative was to put our drink glasses on that side of that table, and with him tipping the bread, we didn’t want to risk a pool of wine on the table.
The room itself was also pretty dark. The dark walls and dark wood tables and chairs certainly could provide warmth to the restaurant, but they make it feel almost claustrophobic. Jim, who of course has vision problems anyway, couldn’t order himself, because he couldn’t see the menu, but then when I had to serve him the antipasto because he couldn’t see to serve himself, I knew it was too dark. We had another dining experience recently where the room was dark, but the walls and the decor was white and bright. While he still couldn’t effectively read the menu, he could see things in the room.
The servers here are not dedicated to any one table, so over the course of our meal, we had four different servers. There may be an advantage here in terms of efficiently clearing the table or delivering meals, but there’s not connection to any one server. You aren’t quite sure who to ask if you want something or need something, because while technically EVERYONE attends you, no one really attends YOU. The one server who actually introduced herself to us at the beginning, never came back to our table for anything over the course of our meal.
We ended the meal feeling full but not satisfied. We hadn’t enjoyed our evening together. The food was definitely delicious, but without conversation and without any feeling of warmth from our servers, who robotically moved throughout the dining room removing and placing dishes, it just felt like food – not a meal.
I would say that Chef Baldino more than earned his James Beard nomination, but Zeppoli is not the kind of dining experience we will return to.