Two different days, two different meals, two extremely different dining experiences. That's our J. Marinara's experience in a nutshell.
Let's start with lunch: The older pop music was too loud, and service was sketchy. The décor was pretty simple—as was the lunch menu. The wine list, although limited, did have a few interesting choices at most reasonable prices.
We ordered cups of pasta fazool soup ($1.99 for a cup, $3.99 for a bowl), the meatball sub ($4.99) and the Italian sub ($5.99). This is billed as East Coast Italian, and the place is run by the team that ran downtown's Ascolese's a while back.
The pasta fazool was rich tomato broth packed with all sorts of beans—garbanzos, two different kinds of red beans and lentils—plus farfalle pasta and a nice assortment of veggies. Parmesan cheese had been sprinkled on top, and by the time the soup reached the table, the cheese had melted, adding a nice, creamy layer of flavor. This was good bean soup.
But then came the sandwiches. Two meatball sandwiches were brought to the table, with one swiftly whisked away when we pointed out the mistake. Thankfully, the Italian sub arrived within minutes.
The Italian sub was merely OK. Salami, ham, prosciutto, mortadella and provolone had been packed into a "fresh roll," and it was all then dressed with the house Italian dressing. There was nothing special here.
The meatball sandwich stood out—but not in a good way. The three meatballs were small and spongy, and there was so much garlic in the marinara sauce that garlic was all you could taste. Don't get me wrong; I love garlic. But too much of it ruined the sandwich. Much ado is made of the sauce here; they even sell it by the jar. I remember thinking, "So if this is how they like sauce in New Jersey, that explains the erratic behavior of those real housewives and Snooki. They've OD'd on garlic."
Our desserts—tiramisu ($4.99) and a single cannoli ($1.99)—didn't do much to improve the meal. The tiramisu had way too much cream and not nearly enough ladyfingers. The cannoli filling lacked that little bit of zing.
Dinner, thankfully, offered a much different experience.
Walking into the dining room, it was hard to believe that this was the same place we'd visited before. The place was all dressed up for dinner: Tables each had both a white and a red tablecloth, as well as a bottle of wine atop them. Frank Sinatra crooned overhead, and the servers were dressed in crisp, white, long-sleeved shirts with ties (save the lone female server, who was also neatly dressed). The attitude was also vastly improved: A dirty glass was quickly replaced; the wobbly table was shimmed; samples of the red-meat offerings were brought to the table for our inspection.
Our wine choices were a glass of pinot grigio and a glass of chianti (each $5.50). Our starters were calamari ($6.99) and fried mozzarella ($5.99); our entrée picks were veal piccata ($18.99) and linguini and clams ($16.99). The latter, we ordered with a bit of trepidation after our lunch visit, since garlic plays such an important part. Was I risking disappointment?
Nope. Almost nothing was disappointing.
As for those appetizers: We had asked for the stuffed peppers ($5.99), but they were out. The server explained that the fried mozzarella wasn't anything like those chewy sticks found every where. Indeed, it was a square of fresh mozzarella, breaded and quickly cooked before being topped with a little marinara. He said it was "delicious"—and it was. The breading was light and almost fluffy, and the cheese was gooey, but not so much that it was hard to eat. And the marinara? This time, it was quite good, perhaps because the sauce had been cooked longer—the way a good marinara should be prepared.
The calamari had a mix of whole little squid and tiny rings, breaded and fried to that perfect tender point. It, too, had the marinara for dipping, and it worked wonderfully this time.
The piccata was thin, tender slices of veal sitting in a creamy light sauce that sang with the flavor of lemon and capers. The veggies alongside were al dente; unfortunately, the mushroom risotto was too gummy and had not a hint of mushroom.
The linguini had been piled high with oodles of baby clams in the shell. The tiny clams were perfectly cooked and oozed briny juices onto the tender pasta. This time, heavy doses of garlic succeeded, taking the luscious broth up a couple of notches. A squeeze of lemon, and ... yum! I used the bread to sop up as much of the broth as possible. It would've been a sin to let it go to waste.
There was more lemon with dessert: The simple unfrosted lemon cake ($4.99) was both sweet and tangy. We also decided to try another cannoli just for the hell of it—and this time, the cannoli was a cannoli—a well-baked shell, with tangy yet sweet filling.
J. Marinara's is located in a building that has been home to at least three other restaurants within the last five years. One was a weird Mexican joint that didn't seem to have a handle on things; another was a wonderful Italianesque place with all sorts of foods from upstate New York. The third was an Asian restaurant that wasn't there very long.
Will J. Marinara's suffer the same fate? If they stick with the dinner agenda, they could break the jinx. If they go with the lunch vibe ... fuggetaboutit!