Italian roots run deep at the Jersey Shore thanks to immigrants like the Ischian fisherman who, a century ago, transformed the marshy back bay of Sea Isle City into “Fish Alley.” And the influence has endured, with so many great Italian restaurants at the beach that I sometimes refer to it as the Pasta Coast. Here are six favorites to channel your own Big Night:
Google killed the secrecy that once shrouded this unmarked red-gravy haven in an Atlantic City basement in “friends-of-friends” exclusivity. That — and new porch seating (a suggestion of Jay-Z, a regular) — hasn’t made it easier to get a reservation at this 1921 landmark owned by the Esposito family.
But it’s worth the effort to savor the epic bone-in veal parm, plump flounder francaise, chicken Scarpariello buried in house-made veal sausage and peppers, followed by a dreamy wedge of warm ricotta pie. Just bring a thick wallet — it’s cash only. 111 S. Albion Pl., Atlantic City, 609-345-2022; chefvola.com
There’s such a unique drama to dinner at the Lautato family’s upscale A.C. standby, with tableside hand-pulled burrata and cacio e pepe twirled inside the hollow of a big rolling pecorino cheese wheel, that my family always begs for a revisit.
Deft updates to Italian American favorites like Sunday gravy and veal chop Milanese make that proposition impossible to resist. 2825 Atlantic Ave., Atlantic City, 609-344-6913; cafe2825.com
Gino Iovino has catered to locals for a quarter century at this enduring sibling to the now-closed Philly branch, whose elegance inside the Ocean Club belies the seedy stretch that surrounds it.
The restaurant’s lavish gold and Capri-blue decor similarly contrasts with one of the best lunch deals around — $15 for two courses — including a spot-on Margherita pizza, house-made cervellata sausage, perfect carbonara, and the signature fish carpaccios that remind me of the Amalfi Coast. 3108 Pacific Ave, Atlantic City, 609-345-5554; mygirasole.com
RED ROOM CAFE
This lively Italian BYOB in Ventnor Heights serves an impressive array of house-made pastas, from toothy ricotta cavatelli with broccoli rabe and sausage to silky pappardelle coiled around beef Bolognese.
The unexpected star, though, is the pork chop creation of chef Vincent Gatta, a lightly breaded chop over a tangy provolone cream sauce, broccoli rabe and crispy frizzled onions, essentially a South Philly roast pork sandwich reimagined on the bone. 141 N. Dorset Ave, Ventnor City, 609-822-1067; redroomcafeattheshore.com
This popular BYOB came back from a Hurricane Sandy hit better than ever as brothers Joe and Luciano Iacovino remade their space with a distressed “city look” but kept the homey menu of Italian American favorites. Luciano has a fresh touch with lemony chicken piccata and smoky veal Valdostana.
But the pastas made by Mamma Graziella Iacovino are the secret gift. Cavatelli with fresh porcini. Airy ricotta gnocchi with delicate meat sauce. Hand-cranked spaghetti with spicy marinara and crab. Regulars also know: Order chocolate soufflé when you reserve. It is as coveted as the tables. 9820 Third Ave., Stone Harbor, 609-967-9115; ristorantelucianostoneharbor.com
La Finestra means “the window,” and the view is picture-perfect from this corner dining room overlooking the Sea Isle City beach, which shimmers just beyond your bountiful bowl of zuppa di pesce.
This space has had many occupants over the years, but the quality here is one tick higher, with the focus on fresh pastas and seafood that brought rustic satisfaction (pappardelle in short rib ragù), zesty swagger (spicy chicken Scarpariello), and the finesse of homemade spinach gnocchi in Gorgonzola cream that was as satisfying as the view. 25 John F. Kennedy Blvd., Sea Isle City, 609-486-5033; lafinestranj.com