What is it about New Jersey’s river towns that reels me in like a fish on a line? Milford, Lambertville, Frenchtown, Collingswood — even New Brunswick — each has a personality all its own and personality to spare. Perhaps it is the rivers themselves, which historically provided a window on the world, especially the world between Philadelphia and New York. Perhaps it is the key roles some played in the Revolution, or the intermingling of wealth that the river commerce provided combined with the working-class grit contributed by the diverse laborers who built, worked, and serviced that trade.

Whatever it is, I have a special affinity for the towns that at one time flourished, then came upon hard times, and eventually pulled themselves up by the bootstraps without succumbing to gentrification (or at least not totally). Happily for this food writer, they also spawned a complement of notable eateries, often family owned and run. Bordentown, in northernmost Burlington County just south of Hamilton, is my current favorite. It is not as sleepy as Milford (where the Milford Oyster House alone is a reason to wend your way there), and not nearly as big and boisterous as New Brunswick (home to several of the state’s top-ranked restaurants, such as Stage Left and the Frog and the Peach).

In recent months Bordentown’s dining scene has exploded, with newcomers such as Under the Moon Cafe, Fred & Dora’s Kitchen, and Toscano, the last of which replaced Conti’s Little Flower in April. These join veterans such as the Farnsworth House and Jester’s Cafe. Visitors can, and I did, metaphorically feast on historic Bordentown’s charms while literally feasting on good eats for breakfast, lunch, brunch, and dinner at no fewer than eight of the town’s eateries, all within blocks of each other. In truth, none of them offers cutting-edge fare — which is perhaps not such a bad thing — and Italian food is probably over-represented, but that just means everyone can find their favorite take on pizza, pasta primavera, and penne vodka. Those among us who are accustomed to dining in and around Princeton can be pleased with the relatively modest tabs hereabout. In addition, these restaurants sport unpretentious interiors and a relaxed, non-fussy atmosphere.

Downtown Bordentown is worth a visit for its impressive history alone, having been home to royalty and rabble-rousing revolutionaries alike. Joseph Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon and the exiled king of Naples and Spain, built his estate, Point Breeze, high up on a wind-swept bluff overlooking a bend in the Delaware River, where he spent what he called “twenty of the happiest years” of his life.

Thomas Paine lived here, and Bordentown’s Thomas Paine Society retraces his steps every second Saturday from April through December. Paine was in good revolutionary company. Francis Hopkinson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, lived at 101 Farnsworth Avenue, and Joseph Borden II fabricated mines at his copper shop on Park Street that were floated down the Delaware and once struck a British barge.

Borden was the son of the town’s namesake merchant who ran a successful line of stage wagons and boats between New York and Philadelphia. In the 19th century, Clara Barton’s one-room schoolhouse was the first to demonstrate that free public schools were a workable concept. The red brick building still stands at the corner of Crosswicks and Burlington streets.

Bonaparte’s palatial home is long gone; the fathers of the Divine Word Missionary currently own and maintain its scenic acreage. Nevertheless, Bordentown boasts an astonishing inventory of architectural gems that span the range from 1600s Quaker brick structures to mid-20th century bungalows. Just about all of these are within walking distance of each other and are interspersed with a diverse group of eateries, antiques shops, art galleries, and bookshops.

This small town of one-square mile and just under 4,000 people (according to the 2000 census) boasts something like five bookshops, with nary a national chain among them. Street-side parking is plentiful and blessedly meter-free but be warned that on Farnsworth Avenue, the borough’s main street, the two-hour daytime limit is strictly enforced. The avenue is named for Thomas Farnsworth, who in 1682 was the first to head upriver from Burlington to make a home for himself in what is now Bordentown.

The town manages to successfully navigate that fine line between respecting and preserving the past and becoming an irrelevant slave to it. It has a decidedly small-town America vibe (or at least, small-town New Jersey vibe) but in recent times has become a bit more lively, if not quite hip. Walk down Farnsworth Avenue and everyone seems to know everyone else, yet visitors are greeted with a smile and a hello. Ask one shop owner about another — even a rival — and nothing but positive comments flow. At many eateries, the majority of diners are on a first-name basis with one another, as well as with the servers and cooks.

It’s easy to work up an appetite in Bordentown. At the Historical Society headquarters inside the 1740 Old Friends (Quaker) Meeting House at 302 Farnsworth, visitors can pick up a brochure for a self-guided walking tour on Saturdays from noon to 3 p.m. (Alternatively, it can be downloaded at www.downtownbordentown.com/tour.) While trawling the streets for historical landmarks and breathtaking architecture, notice the interesting wrought iron fences, many with one-of-a-kind designs, as well as the narrow alleys between buildings that offer peaks into secret gardens.

Any visit should include a short walk down to what the locals call the Beach, a boat launch and pontoon jetty where the Delaware and Crosswicks Creek converge, and a favorite of kayakers. Another distinctive mode of transportation is the River Line light rail system, which includes Bordentown as one of nine historic stops on its run from Trenton to Camden. The trains ply a scenic route along the Delaware, and a ticket good for two hours costs all of $1.25. Among its other stops: the State House in Trenton, the USS Battleship New Jersey, and the New Adventure Aquarium in Camden.

Among my favorite shops in town are the Old Book Shop, where I can spend hours perusing its large selection of books on New Jersey history alone, and Bordentown Antiques and Interiors, where I entertain fantasies of buying any of its choice, eclectic mix of reproduction and antique home furnishings.

The one spot I always hit, though, is App’s Hardware at the corner of Farnsworth Avenue and Burlington Street. It may seem strange to recommend a hardware store, but this one is unique in several regards. The storefront has been restored to its earlier appearance and inside the worn wood floor, massive dark wood counter, and ornate old cash registers evoke the past. Barry Hausser, an owner, knows the answer not only to any home and lawn maintenance problem, but is about as tuned in to Bordentown’s past and present as anyone. The store is also stocked with a fascinating selection of antique tools and kitchen equipment. On my most recent visit I purchased lettuce plants and beeswax candles.

Katie’s Cafe

A good choice for breakfast is Katie’s Coffeehouse & Cafe. Sure, Katie’s also offers lunch every day, serving popular fare such as fajita quesadillas, Buffalo chicken salad, and crab cakes a la Linda. (Named for owner Linda Waskiewicz, I conjecture, who in turn named the coffeehouse for her three-year-old daughter). On Friday and Saturday nights themed dinners are offered along with live folk or rock music. But breakfast really shines here, and that meal is harder to come by downtown, perhaps because Mastoris Diner out on the highway has a monopoly on that meal.

Katie’s makes fierce buttermilk pancakes, which come plain, with blueberries, or in my personal favorite form, “banana surprise.” These are fluffy, light-as-air flapjacks infused with sauteed bananas and chopped pecans, ingredients that could easily turn them into sodden, lumpen messes, but do not. The jug of maple syrup served with them tastes like the real thing. The cost for a portion about twice as large as I could consume even on my hungriest day is $4.75. Among the more unusual egg choices are the Princess Omelet, with roasted red peppers, sauteed spinach, and Brie, and the Saddle Up Omelet, with ham, onions, peppers, tomato, mushrooms, American and cheddar cheeses, home fries, and a biscuit, all for $5.50. In good weather, patrons sun themselves at tables outdoors.

Katie’s Coffeehouse & Cafe, 1-1/2 Crosswicks Street. 609-324-7800.

Jester’s

Al fresco dining is also available just a few doors down, at Jester’s Cafe. I avoided this place for a long time in the mistaken notion that it was related to a similarly named restaurant in Hightstown, and in the correct notion that cigarette smoke from the bar permeated the dining room. Now that the statewide smoking ban has gone into effect, this issue is now moot. Dining outdoors under the cafe’s sapphire-blue market umbrellas affords a ringside seat to the downtown hustle and bustle (or lack thereof). Nothing on Jester’s menu of Italian and American sandwiches, panini, burgers, salads, and pastas is unique, but I was impressed by the quality of the ingredients and the care with which the soups and salads I sampled were made.

Soups the day of my visit did not sound promising: cream of broccoli and barley with meatball. Yet the fresh broccoli was perfectly cooked, nicely accentuated with bits of ham, and swirled into a light, creamy base. The barley, likewise, avoided the common fault of being gummy, thick, and dense. Instead, it was incorporated into a tasty broth with meatballs that had been cut into small dice. Portobello mushroom salad could have been a cliche but the mushrooms were expertly grilled to release their maximum flavor and earthiness. They were tossed in a generous fistful of fresh spring greens with roasted red peppers, red onions, and good quality blue cheese. Harlequin chicken salad was notable for its tender, moist dried cranberries (an oxymoron, I know), as well as its roasted walnuts and white balsamic dressing. My iced-tea loving companion proclaimed Jester’s tea the best she has had outside her own home.

Jester’s Cafe, 233 Farnsworth Avenue. 609-298-9963.

Oliver’s, a Bistro

An absolute must for lunch, at least once, is Oliver’s, a Bistro, which is distinctive not only for its somewhat unusual moniker but also because it serves lunch only, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. And, boy, is that place hopping at lunchtime — with good reason. Joe Caputo and Bob Bice, the current owners, make many items from scratch, including salad dressings and desserts. French, sourdough, and multi-grain breads are baked fresh daily, and the attractive menu of soups, salads, and sandwiches on bread, wraps, and croissants is supplemented by interesting daily specials, which are always seasonal. In fall, these may be butternut squash soup, quiche, and a decadent mac and cheese, while warm weather might inspire asparagus soup and Caribbean shrimp salad with walnuts and house-made honey-lime dressing.

Pumpkin cobbler is so popular here that it is always on the menu, along with Oliver’s famous chocolate cake but they are given a run for the money by Key lime pie, chocolate bread pudding, and Joe’s fresh lemon cheesecake. On Saturdays, Bob specializes in a sandwich of fresh pork loin with caramelized onions and provolone.

Oliver’s, a Bistro, 218 Farnsworth Avenue, 609-298-7177.

Fred and Dora’s Kitchen

Most restaurants in Bordentown offer lunch and dinner, and here’s where the decision-making gets tough. The very casual Fred & Dora’s Kitchen, only a couple of months old, carves a path for itself at lunch with quarter-pound hot dogs, cut down the middle, seared on both sides, and then layered in a baguette with anything from cheese sauce to chili, bacon, or caramelized onions. The Special includes peppers, tomatoes, pickles, celery salt, and aioli. The Mother of All Clubs layers grilled chicken with guacamole, goat cheese, corn salsa, and regular B.L.T. components on sourdough.

There is an extensive dinner menu with some interesting twists on chicken, beef, and seafood. Flank steak comes sliced on crusty bread with warm corn salsa and a drizzle of olive oil, and salmon is baked with asparagus and tomatoes, has a crunchy mustard crust, and is served with sweet pepper rice. Fred & Dora’s also serves Sunday brunch, with similar twists on the traditional offerings. Ask about the Hakuna Frittata, one of many amusing names that owner Erik Zwillinger assigns his fare.

Fred & Dora’s Kitchen, 222 Farnsworth Avenue. 609-298-9003.

Under the Moon

Almost cheek by jowl with Oliver, Fred, and Dora, is Under the Moon, a tiny cafe and even tinier gift shop that is the loving work the Orosco family, which originally hails from Argentina. But its sign proclaims the owners’ first names as well: Luigi and Estela. In fact, this jewel is the handiwork of Mama Estela, who literally dreamed the name, and who creates each evening’s dinner menu based on what she feels like cooking. By all means, go with whatever she feels like cooking, whether it is cauliflower and ham in cream sauce, slender zucchini with a moist, fluffy breadcrumb stuffing, portobellos stuffed with tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella, or salmon Livornese accompanied by Roquefort potatoes. Tuesday features a different pasta each week, at $11 for all you can eat.

Menu items are Argentinean, Italian, or an inspired combination of both. Empanadas, $2 each, are made fresh by hand daily and feature an uncharacteristically light pastry exterior with a moist filling of seasoned ground beef. Lightness also distinguishes a potato pancake the size of a small skillet. I was disappointed that a similar spinach pancake was sold out on one of my visits.

There is also a set menu at Under the Moon, which is in force at lunch and dinner. Among the sandwiches, salads, appetizers, and sides, all of which are first rate, one particular standout is the Cuban sandwich. It surpasses all others of its kind, despite having the usual components of roast pork, ham, chopped pickle, and cheese inside Cuban bread, the whole of which is grilled and pressed like a panino. Sandwiches are accompanied by creamy potato salad with a characteristically South American touch: diced cooked carrots and peas. Dinner entrees come with a tasty house salad, a liberal serving of greens that includes one perfect green olive, feta, and a bracing vinaigrette.

All of these are served in a small storefront cafe with 20 seats, some of which are at counters that look out onto Farnsworth Avenue. Estela Orosco has a fine eye for display, so the space is tastefully decorated with an interesting mix of old and new small home furnishings and tableware, including the tiny room at the rear that acts as a gift shop. Tables have those old-time black iron foot-peddle sewing machines as bases; these are topped with glass. They are set with artfully mismatched napkins, cutlery, and tableware — all charming and colorful. Under the Moon is truly a family affair, since Senor and Senora Orosco are assisted by their two grown children.

Under the Moon, 316 Farnsworth Avenue. 609-291-8301.

Farnsworth House

The Farnsworth House, Marcello’s, and Toscano form a triumvirate of Italian-American restaurants in Bordentown. The venerable Farnsworth House, which sprawls over two floors of an historic old redbrick building, is a perennial favorite of locals. While the food is passable to good, the restaurant remains eminently likeable for its relaxed, friendly service; its well-spaced tables in a comfortable setting; its reasonable prices and generous portions; and a wine list that holds pleasant surprises.

By passing over the menu’s exhaustive list of tired Italian-restaurant and “Continental” classics such as pasta primavera and Tornados Rossini, I have compiled enjoyable meals here. Starting with a platter of cold poached mussels with mustard mayonnaise is a fine way to go, and the chicken soup with pasta is another. The house does a good job with spinach fettuccine tossed with chunks of salmon and “melted” leeks in a brandy cream sauce, a combination that could be too rich and heavy.

On the other hand, veal with artichoke hearts and pignoli was marred by bland meat, and an otherwise sterling seafood dish featured gummy angel hair pasta. Helping to mitigate any disappointments is the wine list, composed of 55 well-priced selections mostly from California and Italy, as well as the battalion of seasoned servers, who are professional but friendly.

Farnsworth House, 135 Farnsworth Avenue. 609-291-0291.

Marcello’s

I missed that friendliness at Marcello’s, where our young server was brusque and unhelpful. When I asked to see a wine list, she instead rattled off the varieties of house wines by the glass. Only after we had ordered two were we presented with the menu, which includes a full page of wines by the bottle. I wish I could combine the friendliness of the Farnsworth House with the Italian fare at Marcello’s, as well as the latter’s wooden deck where patrons dine outdoors in good weather.

The menu here holds few surprises but much of it is a notch above the standard. The hot antipasto platter is good and a bit different, with spicy shrimp and a whole stuffed squid sitting in a pool of creamy, cheesy white sauce that I lapped up with Marcello’s crusty bread.

Several generations of two Italian-American families were enjoying a protracted Sunday dinner on one visit, which gave the dining room a festive air while I and my companion downed massive portions of rigatoni with a superb Bolognese sauce and veal Marcello. Items designated “Marcello” include sauteed button mushrooms and bits of ham, and these were put to good effect in the veal dish.

Marcello’s Pizza and Restaurant, 206 Farnsworth Avene. 609-298-8360.

Toscano

By far the most ambitious, attractive, and relatively pricey of the Italian restaurants in Bordentown is newcomer Toscano, which just opened on April 11, replacing Conti’s Little Flower. The space has been attractively revamped to bring it into the 21st century, with graphite-gray walls, sleek, dim halogen lighting, a sparkling bar at the front, and seating on two levels. The new young chef, a graduate of the French Culinary Institute, brings a new zest especially to the nightly specials. A sprightly spring salad included melon, grapes, and dried figs tossed with beets, gorgonzola, and baby greens, while veal rollatino over pappardelle was notable for the intense veal flavor that held up both to a fra diavolo sauce and its stuffing of prosciutto and cheese.

From the regular menu, the Italian egg rolls are as delicious as they are unusual, and the seared cod with clams and mussels in the shell, also with fra diavolo, would have been perfect except for the grit in the clams. Entrees range from about $17 to $26. The short wine list includes reasonably priced choices that are well suited to the menu, including an Antinori Toscana for $30. Espresso is excellent here; that and a dish of lush vanilla ice cream are fine ways to end a meal. I expect Toscano to just get better and better.

These changes to the downtown dining scene are only one representation of a new vitality spreading through historically working-class Bordentown, a renewal that seems to be picking up steam. Which is only fitting, since it was Bordentown that saw the first run of the John Bull steam locomotive back in 1831. Check out the monument on Farnsworth Avenue, within walking distance of everything else, of course.

Toscano, 136 Farnsworth Avenue. 609-291-0291.

Things to Do

In and Around

Bordentown

Each year in May many of the town’s eateries that do not customarily offer outdoor dining set up tables street-side for two spring fairs. This year, Saturday, May 13, will be devoted to the 10th annual Iris Festival & Art Show, which features a juried iris competition, a display at the small but choice Franklin Carr Memorial Iris Garden, a street-side fine arts sale, and musicians playing at the al fresco restaurants. The following weekend, May 20 and 21, is Bordentown’s annual Street Fair, with crafters and family activities and entertainment. Subsequent months see festivals for blueberries, peaches, cranberries, and even ghosts.

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