For years, the culinary landscape of Hillsborough has been one of blue-collar Italian and bagel places. (I should know. I grew up in this town, where people revealed social allegiances by naming their usual pizza joint. Mine was Frank’s in the Nelson’s Corner Shopping Center.) Driving through our suburban hamlet, veteran restaurateurs Nino and Janet Tamburin noticed this utter lack of fine dining and decided that CoccoLa would be their next venture.
One of the main selling points at CoccoLa, located at the former site of Jersey Jim’s and before that, Jasper’s, is the immensely attractive interior. Susan Davidson, co-founder of DAS Architects in Philadelphia (whose clients include Le Bec-Fin in Philly and Wolfgang’s Steak House in New York), has created a space that is unlike any other in the area. Warm white walls complement the Japanese-style dark wood and plush red seating in each of the four dining rooms and the bar lounge.
In the main dining room, which is sunken, diners can enjoy fresh pasta and fish creations by executive chef Keith Hanks against the backdrop of an open kitchen and raw bar. The space is light and airy, the tables cozy and intimate. One of the two rooms that can be reserved for small, private gatherings features a series of paintings reminiscent of the caricatures at Sardi’s. "Urban sophistication" comes to mind as an accurate description of the decor, menu, and clientele of CoccoLa, which is a term of endearment, "little pet," in Croatian (the homeland of co-owner Nino Tamburin).
As a native of Hillsborough, I never thought there would be a publicity buzz in town over anything more significant than road construction and Little League. However, the CoccoLa team – the Tambourins, wine director Robert Bohr of Manhattan’s Cru, and chef Keith Hanks – has generated quite a buzz around town. On a Thursday night just weeks after its opening in the beginning of July, CoccoLa was absolutely packed.
We started, of course, with drinks. Our server, Patrick, friendly, young, and as good-looking as the rest of the staff, brought us a list of signature cocktails. The grape martini and the martini jolie, both $10, were attractively served, the latter with an edible orchid delicately floating on top of a potion of raspberry liqueur and Chambord. Complimentary flatbread with hummus showed up immediately to accompany our martinis. Already well taken care of, we continued on with appetizers. From the raw bar, the Tuna, Tuna, Tuna ($15) was a trio of sashimi, tartare, and sushi roll, served with the requisite soy sauce and wasabi, and an unexpected but fitting red pepper reduction. Additionally, we ordered the very rich roasted Bartlett pears ($9), a salad that could easily serve as a light meal all on its own. The pears were meaty, their almost cloying sweetness artfully cut by bitter arugula and salty goat cheese.
The extensive menu offerings run the gamut from extremely hearty (pork osso bucco with risotto, $22) to light and delicate (seared sea scallops over summer vegetable ragout, $24). Entrees range in price from $17 for whole wheat penne tossed with broccoli rabe, sun-dried tomato, roasted garlic and extra virgin olive oil to three $29 entrees: sake steamed halibut with white rice, sauteed chard and a sesame hoisin sauce; veal rib chop Milanese, lightly breaded and served golden, topped with arugula, onions, and fresh mozzarella; and grilled petite filet mignon served over sauteed spinach and wild mushrooms ragout topped with Stilton cheese
An unusual feature of the menu is a made-to-order section whereby one can choose tilapia or chicken in one of four preparations, including parmigiana or piccata. The bar has its own menu as well, offering dressed-up versions of the usual bar fare (the CoccoLa burger, $10) as well as a few Italian soul-food nibblies, like the spiedini alla Romana, $7.50 (think fancy grilled cheese.)
My companion settled on the red snapper Marechiara ($24), a generous portion of fish served with two clams and two mussels in a light and very savory red sauce. The fish was meaty but flaky, perfectly cooked and well seasoned. I broke my usual no-pasta-in-big-restaurants rule and ordered the house made eggplant ravioli ($23), which is served with a tomato basil butter and toasted pignoli nuts.
Dessert was of the expected tiramisu and chocolate cake variety. The molten chocolate cake ($8), served simply in a ramekin, was a rich way to end a rich meal, and perfect for chocolate lovers, even in the heat of summer. For those looking to cool off, order the gelato and sorbet trio ($8), a scoop each of pistachio and vanilla gelato and raspberry sorbet, served with biscotti.
The ambitious diners of Hillsborough need no longer traverse across central Jersey for a true fine dining experience. However, they should expect a three-digit check. Ours, including a bottle of wine and tip, came to $185 for two diners. While no doubt it will become a destination for diners from neighboring areas, I do wonder if CoccoLa’s excellent food and ambiance hold enough momentum to keep Hillsborough diners coming back despite a hefty bill, time after time.
– Jamie Bunce
CoccoLa, 150 Route 206 South, Hillsborough Township. 908-704-1160 Fax: 908-704-1180, www.coccolarestaurant.com. Brunch Sundays. 10 percent off lunch parties of four or more in August. Happy hour Monday through Friday, 5 to 8 p.m., with complimentary hors d’ouevres.