By G. Michael Dobbs
EAST LONGMEADOW Anyone who has ever been to more than four Italian restaurants understands there can be a very wide variation of what is presented as Italian cuisine.
Some eateries seek to be authentic, while others merely seem to present different combinations of pasta, meat and tomato sauce.
Villa Napoletana stands out that it clearly respects and presents traditions of classic Italian fare while pushing the gastronomic envelope.
Carmine Manzi, our server the other night, also the brother of owner Joe Manzi, explained that while the kitchen staff is happy to make well known dishes such as spaghetti and meatballs, "we're not necessarily going for the old school Italian food."
He added, "We're trying to go outside the limit."
Tucked next to a convenience store at 664 North Main St., the restaurant features live music on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Manzi said the music ranges from jazz to classic Italian tunes to crooning "Rat Pack" standards.
Manzi, who is also the restaurant's bartender, is as daring with his cocktails as the kitchen is with its entrees. He excels in making unique martinis such as a tiramisu martini and frozen hazelnut martini.
Manzi also knows his wines and is able to match a dish with a complementary beverage.
The menu has much to offer and it took a while to consider our options. While we pondered, Manzi brought over a hot fresh loaf of bread and a combination of olive oil, balsamic vinegar and pepper for dipping a delicious way to start.
I was actively considering the Chicken Amaretto, which is a pan seared chicken breast served with a citrus amaretto sauce, until Manzi read the evening's specials. I'm willing to admit that if someone is presenting scallops as a special, the menu is ditched and Villa Napoletana was offering Tuxedo Scallops scallops broiled with roasted black and white sesame seeds and served in a tangerine citrus sauce.
Say no more.
My wife went with the Lasagna Bianca layered pasta with ricotta, zucchini, yellow squash, mushrooms, roasted red peppers and eggplant with light white cheese sauce.
For an appetizer, we went with the Portabella Imbottiti, which was a large grilled marinated portabella mushroom stuffed with spicy sausage stuffing, topped with melted Asiago cheese. Beautiful to look at and absolutely delicious, this was a dish I will try to reproduce at home.
Our salads featured the restaurant's own Gorgonzola balsamic dressing, which was very flavorful but not overwhelming.
Our entrees exceeded our expectations. My dish featured five large scallops perfectly cooked and positioned around the plate to surround cooked spinach. The combination of the roasted sesame seeds with the citrus sauce was a perfect complement to the scallops.
My wife was very impressed with her lasagna and it's amazing yes, I stole a bite cheese sauce.
The generous portions left little room for dessert, but we soldiered on for the sake of journalism. Villa Napoletana has a substantial dessert list ranging from tiramisu to raspberry rhubarb pie to red velvet cake decisions, decisions.
We chose to split a light, perfectly sweet crème brulee garnished with raspberries and blackberries. It was a great way to end a meal.
Manzi naturally asked about coffee. While I don't like coffee, my wife loves it, but his suggestions to make her a cappuccino fell initially on deaf ears. She has never had one that wasn't bitter, she explained.
Manzi said his would change her mind on the coffee drink and it did. In fact, I even liked it. He explained it was all in the kind of coffee used and many coffee shops and restaurants use a roast that is too dark.
Great food and service placed Villa Napoletana on our return list.
For more information, go to www.villanapoletana.com.
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