|"Cumare" Nancy's Stuffed Calamari with Spinach at Catherine Lombardi, an Italian-American restaurant in New Brunswick.|
By VICTOR E. SASSON
We battled horrendous rush-hour traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike, but the payoff was a wonderful meal of Italian-American comfort food, and the guitar and vocal magic of jazz giant George Benson.
New Brunswick, a vibrant center for the arts, has a lot of great restaurants, and we chose Catherine Lombardi on the second floor of Stage Left, just down the street from the 8 p.m. concert at the State Theater.
Late Friday afternoon, we figured we could drive from our home to the restaurant in an hour, but it took nearly 90 minutes to cover less than 45 miles.
|Arugula and Parmigiano Reggiano Salad.|
Cold antipasto and salads
We started with a trio of cold appetizers for $10 -- chilled marinated fresh sardines and white anchovies in olive oil, and cubes of Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese aged 1 year.
The sardines were fresh, and the anchovies weren't overly salted, perfect with crusts of the dinner rolls in the bread basket.
The menu lists 18 cold antipasti -- three for $10, six for $16 and nine for $20. You could make a meal of them.
We moved onto salads, which are listed last on the menu and usually served last, as is the custom in Italy.
I loved the tart, lemony dressing of my peppery Arugula and Parmigiano Reggiano Salad ($10.95), this one with cheese aged 24 months and shaved to show off its full flavor.
My wife enjoyed her Caesar Salad (also $10.95), but left the croutons.
|A trio of cold appetizers -- fresh sardines, white anchovies and Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese.|
Baby squid, meatballs, wine
My wife couldn't finish her entree, and when we asked the waiter to pack it up, he said the restaurant would hold the food in the refrigerator until after our concert.
A carafe holding 8 ounces of a young Chianti was $12, though a better choice would have been the smoother Chianti Classico.
|Spaghetti & Meatballs in Marinara.|
|We were seated at one of the tables for two in front of the fireplace.|
|The busy bar held champagne on ice and a Spanish ham whose thin slices, we were told, would melt in our mouths.|
|Earnest servers in dark suits and ties had a hard time keeping up after the dining room filled up.|
Coffee and service
We didn't bother looking at the dessert menu, and ordered coffee, which was terrific with a little milk.
But getting a server's attention for a refill proved difficult once the dining room filled up with customers and noise.
The racket from the bar and tables reminded us of Cassie's, a family oriented pizzeria we once patronized in Englewood, where we loved the food, but not the unending din.
We had a wonderful meal at Carherine Lombardi, notwithstanding our first impression of the restaurant -- a dirty, musty smelling carpet on the stairs we had to climb to the dining room.
Catherine Lombardi Restaurant, 5 Livingston St., New Brunswick; 1-732-828-4444. Reservations recommended.
Web site: Italian-American Home Cooking
Given his energy and musicianship, it's hard to believe jazz guitarist George Benson is 71 years old.
At the State Theater on Friday night, he belted out one tune after another in front of his driving band for about 90 minutes, including encores.
The sextet includes a rare congera, a woman who plays conga and bongo drums, and percussion instruments, and provides high-decibel background vocals.
But Benson's voice and the words of his songs often were obscured by his band's electrified instruments, and I missed him singing, accompanied only by his guitar.
Our tickets were free -- one of the perks for joining the Jazz Leadership Society at WBGO-FM, the jazz station in Newark.
The State Theater, a former vaudeville and silent movie palace at 15 Livingston Ave. in New Brunswick, recommends patrons park in the Morris Street Parking Deck a couple of blocks away.
Be sure to buy a $9 parking voucher at the theater or you will have to stand on a long line of more than 100 people we saw paying for their parking at the garage after the concert.
The voucher gives you up to 12 hours of parking, and allows you to go straight to your car, head for the exit, pay and leave.