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Enzo Scozzari's 'Little Kitchen' that could
Published: Wednesday, July 01, 2009

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Enzo's Piccola Cucina on Princeton Avenue in Lawrenceville, N.J. (Photo by Jennifer Marsh)

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By Colin Marsh; Food Critic

100 years after his parents served up Italian at their deli, Enzo Scozzari’s wife and daughter make sure his family’s legacy lives on.

Recently I have been eating a lot of Italian food, some of it good and some of it, let’s just say, you will not read about. When I go to an Italian restaurant and I see a table of six older, Italian-looking gentlemen with no menus laughing, eating and talking about old times, I think I am on to something. When I ask the owner what they are eating and she tells me, “oh, they just come in on a Friday and ask me to feed them,” I know I have found a winner.

A good friend of mine recommended Enzo’s Piccola Cucina on Princeton Avenue in Lawrenceville, N.J. Vincent (Enzo) Scozzari Sr. opened Enzo’s in the space where his father and mother had an Italian deli in the 1900s. Scozzari’s goal was to create a place where his family and friends would feel at home, bring their own wine and enjoy his homemade Italian food. Recruiting his wife Rita and daughter Anna, Scozzari called his place Enzo’s Piccola Cucina (little kitchen). They are celebrating 25 years at their Lawrenceville location that opened in 1983. They have survived the onslaught of inferior plastic Italian chain restaurants with the help of the loyal clientele who knew and understood real Italian food and the true meaning of a family restaurant. Enzo has since passed away, but Rita and Anna are still in the forefront of the business, greeting guests and making sure that Enzo’s standards are adhered to.

The night we were there the friend who recommended Enzo’s joined us with his wife. I think he knew how good it was and wanted to share in the experience. Anna greeted us at the door and found us a table in the small 48-seat dining room. The place was packed with diners enjoying what looked like great food. The six “Italian gentlemen” were in full swing when we got there and the place had an atmosphere that made me feel right at home. The room looks like it has not been refurbished since it opened but the décor worked well with the atmosphere. Wood paneled walls, hanging Christmas lights, pictures of Italy and other Italian treasures that looked like they were picked from an Italian grandmothers living room. The room is small and the tables are packed in but the servers seem to work miracles navigating between guests when taking orders and delivering food.

The place is still a BYO and following Enzo’s dream we brought our own wine and were ready for some of their wonderful looking Italian food. The centerpiece of the dining room is the chalkboard specials menu that serves as an addition to the very large regular dinner menu. We were spoilt for choice and I knew in the back of my mind it would take us a while to order.

Our server Giovanni — a nine-year veteran of Enzo’s — offered us water, gave us menus, uncorked our wine and left us alone to relax and choose. Anna came to the table, introduced herself as the owner and asked if we had been there before. She explained a little about the restaurant, taking pride in her father, mother and history of the restaurant.

Giovanni returned to our table armed with a large basket of crusty bread and a bottle of fruity olive oil. We knew it was time to make a decision. What made things difficult was an added fixed-price menu that offered three courses for $20; such a value it made us ask for more time to choose. Finally we decided to order an assortment of dishes choosing from all three menus. Anna had warned us their portions are for sharing and things would be family style, so we tried to think light.

I went with a wonderful-sounding asparagus salad with crispy fried goat cheese and walnuts off the specials menu paired with a delicious sounding entrée of handmade papadella with pancetta and fresh fava beans. I love fava beans, and being a chef I know how much work they can be to prepare when fresh. I was not doing the labor so I had to have them. My entrée came with a choice of soup or salad and I was set.

My wife went with fried calamari with spicy marinara for her appetizer, and for her entree, pork, escarole and white beans. Both traditional Italian dishes both sounding (and tasting) delicious. Our friends rounded out the choices with steamed mussels in a dijon white wine sauce and a special of the night sambuca shrimp for appetizers and scallops in spicy marinara and another order of the pork, escarole and beans. We thought we were set until I spotted something we all agreed we had to try, a house special called button bread. It had a strange name, but was basically a small loaf of their crusty bread with the top cut off (the button) then filled with leeks, garlic and tarragon that had been sautéed in butter. We were all glad we ordered it; the melted leeks and butter worked so well I advise you to get it if you go.

Our appetizers accompanied the button bread, and I instantly knew my friend was wise to recommend Enzo’s. I was treated to perfectly-cooked asparagus, fresh-tasting mixed greens and a nugget of salty, delicious, breaded fried goat cheese. The whole salad was dressed with sweet honey balsamic vinaigrette. This was original, fresh and very tasty, with all the elements working together. My wife’s calamari was another sign of a kitchen that knows what it is doing. Crispy tender calamari nicely seasoned and served hot with a chunky homemade marinara. The calamari was hand breaded and cooked with pride. The mussels in Dijon were another sign of seasoned chefs, nicely steamed with a little white wine and the right amount of mustard to enhance and not overpower. The sambuca shrimp was the winner in the appetizer section though: three very large shrimp sautéed to perfection and served atop fresh grilled crostini in a licorice-scented sambuca butter sauce, layered with fresh chopped parsley. This dish was original, tasty and executed with skill. The four of us shared dishes, swapped opinions and agreed that Enzo’s is a great find.

Anna came back to our table and talked about her favorite dishes and shared her thoughts on simple cooked dishes with limited ingredients. We all agreed real Italian food needs to be uncomplicated and the food needs to speak for itself, hallelujah. Our side salads were next up served in chilled bowls containing hand washed lettuce, red cabbage, carrots and blue cheese in a simple vinaigrette. This, with the remains of the button bread was a course unto itself. If that was not enough a plate arrived at the table with red wine marinated calamari that had been simply grilled over charcoal and served with white beans and caramelized onion. Anna had sent it out as both a gift and a follow up to her statement on uncomplicated food, what a way to make a point!

I was getting full by this point, but this was Italian dining and that is the idea. The group of six was slowing down after a night of braciole, lasagna and roast pork. I could see the look of long-lost mothers on their faces with Anna and Enzo’s the replacement surrogate. It was at this point that, almost on cue, Anna’s mother, Rita, walked in to talk to the table and I felt a tear forming in the eyes of the men. I can see why they come back.

I felt we had been given enough time to digest when our entrees arrived. Once again we were treated to food that was handmade to traditional recipes handed down through generations. My papadella was true to its translation. I was treated to a bowl of pasta that looked like cut paper boiled and tossed with fresh fava beans and pancetta. The fava beans were perfectly cooked, blanched then peeled with their unique flavor a nice accompaniment to the pasta. This was simple rustic peasant food; the seasonal favas being the centerpiece. My wife’s pork, escarole and beans were another hit: slow-roasted pork shoulder, sliced and tossed with escarole and fresh-cooked beans. This was a simple dish that worked, made with fresh, seasonal ingredients done right. The scallops “fra diavlo” were well executed; perfectly caramelized scallops tossed in a homemade red pepper-infused tomato sauce — a classic.

We were all doing well with what we ordered until I looked up and saw a glint in Anna’s eye. She had sent another gift from the kitchen. Giovanni put down a single soft shell crab that had been dipped in seasoned flour, then pan fried. It was served with a white wine and lemon butter sauce. She had overheard a table conversation we had been having about my love of soft shells and wanted to show their simple take and emphasize her point about uncomplicated food. She was preaching to the choir by this point.

I felt I could not eat another thing and was thinking about what we could take home when Giovanni arrived with a tray of homemade desserts. After much arm-twisting we agreed to sample two homemade classics: tiramisu and rum cake. The tiramisu was light and full of coffee flavor, but the rum cake made me yearn for a larger stomach. Creamy ricotta studded with fresh pineapple and encased in ladyfingers. Again, simple and delicious — and all homemade.

When we finally stopped eating and the take-home food packed, we all agreed that this was real Italian food. I was a little sad when I thought about the generation of Americans who look at Olive Garden or one of the other chains as Italian food. Do they know what they are missing and will they ever find out? It was at this point that I took a look around the dining room and saw couples and families from all age groups. I had been too into my food to notice that the dining room was filling with a regular clientele that spans all generations. All hope was not lost in my heart that at least this group knew true, simple Italian cooking.

Go and discover Enzo’s Piccola Cucina. They have been going for 26 years by serving REAL Italian food to a loyal clientele at a fair price. Anna Scozzari will greet you at the door and welcome you into her home. Sample the midweek special menu when they offer food at prices from 20 years ago. The dining room is a little dated and the tables a little small, but they more than make that up with simple, traditional, rustic food to go with great service and prices that are a steal.

Go on a Friday and see if the “group of six” is there to reminisce.

You might shed a tear with them.

IF YOU GO: Enzo’s Piccola Cuchina; 1906 Princeton Ave., Lawrenceville, N.J. Phone: 609-396-9868. Fax: 609-396-8896. www.enzoscucina.com

Colin Marsh is a certified executive chef with 26 years experience in professional kitchens in England, New York City and Princeton, N.J. He is the culinary arts instructor at Bucks County Technical High School. E-mail him with opinions or suggestions at colinmarsh@ingnews.com.

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