You could stand on a corner and look around until a restaurant sign draws you in. But we've got a better idea. Each week, Patch picks a great restaurant either in town or nearby that is worth checking out. Here's this week's choice:
Overview: Espo's, in Raritan, is not what you would expect in a location you wouldn't expect. Off the beaten path, about a block away from the Raritan train station, it looks like a regular house from the outside. But inside, the food is tasty with a very family-style environment, reminiscent of sitting at your dining room table and enjoying a nice pasta dinner—plus the prices are low and reasonable.
Décor: With the appearance of a tavern with wood panelling, there is nothing extra special that makes the restaurant stand out. If you weren't looking for it, you might miss it. With about 30 tables, there is also a bar, and the restaurant is bathed in low lighting, with some college memorabilia in the corner. Interestingly, the restaurant has no menus, just chalkboards on several walls with available dishes and their prices. It's an interesting maneuver, and one that actually made it feel more cozy than I had expected.
The Drinks: The restaurant has a full-service bar with all manner of drinks. Although I did not partake in any of them, I could see the wine and other bottles lined up, and several people sat enjoying a beer and some food while watching football on the television in the corner. It seemed they offer more bar-style food if you are sitting there, like meats and chicken.
Entrees: I will first admit that there weren't many choices for dishes, and several were seafood-related, which I wouldn't have tried. But my dining partner opted for stuffed shells with meat sauce and I chose a baked ziti–although it was nothing like I expected.
The meal started with salads—a surprise to me, since that wasn't listed on the chalkboards. But I was pleased because none of the main courses listed any kind of vegetable, and there are no appetizers, so I was hoping for an opportunity to have something green with my meal. The salad was standard, nothing you can't get anywhere else.
And then the main meal came. My dining partner's stuffed shell plate came with four shells in total, covered with mozzerella cheese and doused in tomato sauce. It looked delicious, and he was very pleased with the taste.
My dish came, and I honestly didn't know what to make of it. What had been done was they took a plate of ziti, put mozzerella cheese on top [which promptly melted—yum!], put ricotta cheese on top of that and then doused it in tomato sauce. Now, I admit there was too much tomato sauce on it for my taste [although I understand I'm a little strange in my desire to not have sauce], so I scraped a good deal of it off the top. But the mixture of ziti, mozzerella cheese, ricotta cheese and the parmesan cheese I dumped on top [plus the sauce I left on] was absolutely delicious. It was exactly what I was in the mood for, and I was very pleased with the result.
The only other problem was that it was entirely too big, and I ended up taking half of it home. But my dining partner described the food as family style, saying that there weren't any special seasonings, or additions to the pasta that were different than what we could have made at home—and we were perfectly pleased with that, although I guess it depends on your preference.
Desserts: The restaurant offers several desserts, many of which you would not normally expect in a classis Italian place. With tartufo, cheesecake, chocolate mousse pie and peanut butter chocolate mousse pie, there were several selections, though surprisingly devoid of anything really Italian [where's the gelato?]
Service: The restaurant was not very crowded, at least when I was there, so wait time was virtually non-existent. We were told to seat ourselves, and the waiters were very attentive, with food coming out of the kitchen very quickly. The only problem I had was that they do not accept credit card, only cash or check, so if you go there, make sure to have cash with you. Fortunately, the prices are reasonable [$11.95 for my ziti], so it wasn't too horrible having to pay in cash.
Address: 10 2nd Street, Raritan, NJ