Although the couple hail from the Garden State, they've named their restaurant Empire State in honor of state neighbor to the north. Located along East Broadway near Camino Seco, the storefront establishment could be easy to miss. But once you've found it, the unmistakable aroma of garlic is riveting. The menu proves just as alluring.
Empire State's greatest deficit has nothing to do with its food. In a space that's newly painted, scrubbed and polished, the restaurant wins high marks for cleanliness but scores low in ambience. The cream-colored walls are largely barren. The main dining room is uncomfortably cavernous, with an exposed waitress station and alley exit door fully visible at one end. New Chianti bottles stoppered with 24-inch tapered candles teeter uncertainly on each table. The tables themselves are a touch too wide, and hamper intimate conversation. The noise level can swell uncomfortably when the restaurant is busy.
However, the proof is in the pasta, and in this regard, Empire State is a rising star.
Billed as a restaurant, pizzeria and deli, Empire State covers an ambitious amount of culinary ground. While the deli trade doesn't seem to be thriving, the restaurant and pizza more than pick up the slack.
The complete menu features appetizers, salads, soup, pasta and main course entrees, including several veal, chicken and beef specialties. Warm, sliced Italian bread accompanies the menus. We begin the evening with an order of garlic bread and roasted red bell peppers with fresh mozzarella cheese.
The garlic bread alone is worth the drive. Sliced bread is slathered with golden butter, sprinkled with chopped parsley, and then riddled with an outrageous amount of finely diced garlic. While certainly not subtle, the bread is the perfect accompaniment to anything on Empire State's menu, be it an icy Pieroni beer or a plate of veal parmigiana.
The red peppers, though quite tasty, didn't impress as whole-heartedly as the garlic bread. Marinated in olive oil and vinegar, strips of roasted peppers highlighted a platter featuring squares of mozzarella cheese and stuffed green olives.
Entrees are served with soup or salad; we declined a cup of chicken and rice soup in favor of Empire State's dinner salad, an unremarkable but very fresh toss of leafy green lettuce, wedged tomato, sliced cucumber and red onion rings. Due to a temporary shortage of house Italian dressing, I sampled the blue cheese, which was distinctly bottled and lackluster. My husband, who opted for the simpler pleasure of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, found the salad delicious.
A pasta dish known as the Yankee Clipper, in honor of Joe DiMaggio, is the highlight of Empire State's menu. A mound of clams, mussels, shrimp and crab top a nest of steaming spaghettini tossed with a broth of white wine, garlic and olive oil. At $16.95, the dish is the most expensive on the menu, but it's also one of the best values. The staggeringly abundant seafood is uniformly fresh and savory; the muted broth contributes critical undertones of garlic, oregano and basil; and the pasta imparts real texture and taste, and is clearly homemade (or else an exceptional alternative.) We did miss the offer of some fresh parmesan, but otherwise, the dish was fabulous.
The chicken parmigiana was adequate, but uninspired. The breaded cutlet was a bit too thick, and the sparse sauce required more punch. An Italian tomato sauce should be a complex melding of flavors that completely seizes the senses. This fell a bit short.
On another visit, however, we tried the cheese manicotti, which similarly incorporated a red sauce, and were this time ecstatic. Dark red, rich with garlic and bursting with a full complement of tomato zest, the sauce admirably mingled with the tubes of pasta stuffed heartily with a blend of herbed ricotta cheese. A luxurious drape of melted, creamy mozzarella covered the whole. Every ingredient conspired to create comfort food at its finest.
While the entrees are generally outstanding, the pizzas at Empire State likewise merit consideration. Of varying size, these pies boast a chewy homemade crust topped with generous portions of your favorite ingredients. Like most New York-style pizza, the secret is the elegant but simple allure of the best crust, the best cheese, the best sauce and the best quality ingredients available. One night, we took advantage of a special 18-inch, three-topping pizza for $12.95. It easily fed three with leftovers. There's no better value or tastier pizza anywhere in town.
Baked dessert offerings come courtesy of local Viro's Bakery, and include cheesecake and cannoli as well as ice cream. The spumoni makes for a glorious last touch. A molded, layered round of delicious, rich chocolate and green pistachio ice cream drizzled with chocolate sauce is another ideal conclusion to a filling meal.
Service is friendly and efficient, and it's common for owner-chef Marc to wander from the kitchen to chat with guests.
While Empire State could do with a cozier atmosphere -- and add a few touches like grated parmesan or herbed olive oil at the table -- there is no doubt that this small restaurant is destined for great things.