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RISTORANTE Authentic Italian Cuisine Olives Established in 1994

Italian cooking 'from scratch' makes the difference.

By Gretchen Van Benthuysen
For the Asbury Park Press

It's easy to pass La Cashina Ristorante on busy Route 34 in Marlboro. It sits between a nondescript mini mall and a power equipment company where the highway changes from two to four lanes for the one mile it travels through the township.

If you miss it, turn around and go back. The food and service is well worth the effort. Need another incentive? Currently, if you buy one lunch item, you get the second free with the purchase of two beverages between 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays.

Very likely, you'll be greeted at the door by owner /manager Frank Chilelli, or his son, owner/chef Domenick Chilelli. Table service may be provided by Domenick's wife, Diana, or daughters, Gina Marie or Dominique. Yes, it's a family operation and it's been in this location since 1994.

The L-shaped restaurant seats 90 and hosts private parties, fundraisers and meetings. During a recent Tuesday, 12 patrons were seated for lunch. Delores Schoelkopf of Aberdeen said it was a slow day. She was with two friends, but often comes with her husband, children or grandchildren and said it usually is busier. "The food is excellent, the people are nice and prices are good," she says. "When I go for Italian, I always come here. I don't even look at the menu. (Diana) knows I always order chicken parmagiana." It is BYOB and the tables are set for fine dining with pale pink table cloths, maroon napkins and spotless wine glasses and silverware. Italian music plays softly in the background. A hand-painted mural of a rural roadside farmhouse —La Cashina — dominates one wall.

(In Italian, it would be spelled La Cascina, but the owners thought it would be mispronounced, so they used a phonetic spelling).

For lunch, appetizers range from $5.95 to $8.95, including mozzarella calabrese (mozzarella, tomatoes, roasted peppers and marinated eggplant strips, $8.95) salads from $5.95 for mixed to $12.95 for grilled salmon over baby arugula, craisins and toasted walnuts; soups $4.95; pasta dishes from $7.95 to $9.95; chicken, veal, and seafood entrees from $9.95 to $13.95; sandwiches $6.95 and $7.95, all wraps $7.95 and all paninis $8.50.

My daughter ordered penne vodka (penne with diced onions and plum tomatoes sautéed in vodka sauce, $8.95). I had Diana Chilelli's recommendation of her favorite dish, Chicken Lucana (two chicken breasts pounded thin topped with eggplant, prosciutto and mozzarella served in a pink sauce with pasta, or green beans and potato croquette, $10.95). The rim of the large white dishes were decorated with dice tomatoes and parsley. They were both delicious. Lunch came with crusty Italian bread from Brooklyn and a small house salad of torn romaine lettuce, with thin strips of carrot, olives, cucumber slices and made on-the-premises Italian dressing. Domenick Chilelli says his main emphasis is serving fresh food from scratch. He shops once or twice a week to handpick his meat, seafood and produce from purveyors. He makes, for example, his own salad dressings, croutons, roasted red peppers and cannolis.

He buys a 70-pound wheel of imported pecorina romano and grates it himself. "We do all things fresh," he says, adding he learned to cook from his Sicilian mother. His father is from Calabria and both are immigrants. "Our goal here is to really take care of our customers. They are guests in our home. That's how our family perceives it. "When you come into our home, we do everything we can to take care of you and make you happy," he explains. "You have to leave here totally satisfied. You can't leave here not happy. If you do, it would be like I did something wrong."

We ended our lunch with a selection from the hard-to-decide dessert tray. My daughter had coconut sorbet in a coconut shell and I had a peanut butter tartufo the size of a softball: peanut butter gelato with a caramel center and milk chocolate shell. All desserts, which included chocolate cake, apple streusel, cheesecake and cherry and limoncello gelato, are $6.95. And we most definitely left satisfied.