A’Pizze Tuscan Grill replaces Barone Tuscan Grill in the Center Square Road strip mall, which I gave a very lukewarm review of last June. Although the food was generally acceptable (if not exceptional) at Barone’s, service was consistently a problem and many issues and rumors about the operation abounded. Therefore it wasn’t a huge surprise when Barone’s closed its doors, and word hit the area that Chef Mimmo of Toscana Mullica Hill would be opening a new pizza/Italian restaurant in its place.
Now, lately I have been less than thrilled with Toscana as well. I’ve felt that the food there has been slipping in quality, even if never some of the best Italian in the area. Perhaps part of the problem was the head chef being focused more on getting A’Pizze started, because the food there on a recent first visit reminded me more of what Toscana used to be like. It’s still not exactly award winning or innovative Italian food, but for the area it’s fair – and with a couple standout dishes right off the bat.
First it should be noted how much nicer and more inviting A’Pizze is as a space than Barone’s. Gone are the colder colors and large black-and-white photography; A’Pizze is all warm Tuscan browns, golds, and oranges – similar to Toscana unsurprisingly but a little more restrained. Many of the servers should be familiar to Toscana diners as well, as some of the more “experienced” servers have been imported temporarily to train the new staff for A’Pizze. We found that improved the service experience dramatically over what we experienced at Barone’s, as we were always well taken care of in turns of having water glasses filled, plates cleared, and dishes brought out in an efficient fashion.
Perhaps the menu is a bit TOO familiar to anyone who has dined before at Toscana – many dishes offered are exactly the same, although there is some variety in what is offered at one restaurant vs. the other. Pizza, pasta, chicken, seafood and grilled meat dishes are complemented by a variety of classic & non-traditional appetizers and salads. Most entrees come with a “Wedge” salad (yes, exactly like the ones at Toscana), but I’d say the Roasted Beet and Pear salad I tried was well worth sampling instead for a change. Although a little awkwardly plated (the tower had to be disassembled to enjoy), I liked the combination of the sweet fresh beets with the crunchy pears, and the salad was dressed just right. My dinner companions stuck with the iceberg wedge salads that came with their pasta dishes – I sampled it and it tasted just fine, really nice and fresh, paired well with a blue cheese dressing. I decided I wanted to try a pizza that evening, as A’Pizze offers several interesting combinations of toppings on their pies (along with of course “make your own” options). Like Toscana, A’Pizze makes a considerable fuss about their rotating wood-fired pizza oven, so it seemed worth giving a sample here.
I was tempted to try the Clams Cilantro, which sounded very interesting with a touch of lime, but instead went with A’Pizze’s namesake pie of anchovies, black olives, carmelized red onion and arugula. This ended up being an outstanding choice and I was very impressed by the boldness of the flavors. It actually tasted like the kind of pie I have enjoyed in Italy itself, not an Americanized version. Strongly sour and salty, the pie could have just used a little more arugula to balance the other flavors. But I particularly enjoyed the anchovies, which were either actually fresh or an extremely high-quality prepared variety – not at all your typical anchovies from a tin. The pie itself had a nice thin crust, and the “single serving” left me with nearly half to take home and enjoy the next day.Both my companions ordered chicken dishes which came served over pasta. I took a brief bite of both, and thought one which came with shrimp and artichokes was particularly nice. Both dishes looked bright, tasted fresh and were not excessively oversauced or oily, which has often been my complaint with some of Toscana’s pastas and entrees in the past.
We enjoyed our meal with two wines, a lovely smooth chianti classico and a sweet moscato. Although I’m not normally a sweet wine drinker, the moscato went particularly well with my pizza, the sweet crispness nicely balancing the salty/sour flavors of the pie. I do with A’Pizze had nicer glassware for wine – the clunky, heavy cut-glass goblets just aren’t particularly attractive nor designed for better quality wines. Could we please see some more delicate glassware in the future?
We did sample a few desserts off the dessert tray. I do not believe they are house-made, as when one companion ordered a peanut butter/chocolate pie, the server came back and apologized that it was “still frozen” and unavailable. Hmm. Well, I did enjoy my chocolate profiteroles with vanilla cream filling, and the tiramisu I tasted was good if not exceptional. I wouldn’t go out of my way to save room for dessert here, but the choices are decent enough for anyone insistent on satisfying a sweet tooth.Overall our bill for one special salad, one individual pizza, two entrees, three desserts and coffee was just over $80 before tip. I don’t find that unreasonable for three people enjoying a full meal out, and next time I might just skip dessert (or only share one) and try another appetizer or salad instead. I hope A’Pizze settles into more of an individual groove from Toscana, and I will be back in the future, particularly to try more of their unique pizza offerings.
A’Pizze Tuscan Grill (no website yet)
120 Center Square Road
Woolwich Township, NJ 08085
Credit cards accepted; BYOB; take-out available.