It's the difference between prose and poetry, between treading water and swimming for all you're worth. We dined at both Due Terre in Bernardsville and Cafe Azzurro in nearby Peacpack for a definitive mano-a-mano shootout to determine the best Italian cuisine in the area. Depending on your budget and your intent, one of the two is the present and future while the other is the past. One stands tall while the other shrinks in its shadow.
We began both bacchanals with each of their fried Calamari appetizers. The Azzurro dish, though prosaic, was more than passable. The calamari wasn't at all greasy, and the dipping sauce was a decent tomato concoction sprinkled liberally with the same crushed red pepper you'd shake on your favorite slice at the local pizza parlor. But Due Terre? Madonna! We've never had Calamari with such a light delicate coating, and so perfectly done. The Judith Point Calamari dipped in their signature Sicilian creme sauce was incomparable. For a similar price, the Azzurro portion was larger but both were easily shareable. Score one big for Due Terre.
But it was in the main courses that one Spaghetti-Western cowboy shot the other dead. Again, Azzurro's cuisine was both passable and adequately satisfying for an evening's sustenation but not nearly as good as we remembered it. We ordered the Chicken Scapariello and the Shitaki Mushroom Ravioli. To our chagrin, save for the fiery red peppers in the Scapariello, we were sure that both dishes swam in the identical sauce, a fact we later confirmed with our waiter. Still, despite the chef's laziness, both dishes were adequate, if forgettable. Due Terre? Unforgettable! To this day, we remember the ravioli stuffed with short ribs, and supported by a woodsy mushroom sauce. It was the difference between hand-made and machine made. Assembly line and assembled with care.
We later learned that Azzurro's famous chef Rudolfo had sold the place, and that the current chef was trying to follow in footsteps far bigger than his feet. Alas. While Due Terre is on the way up, Azzurro seems to be either at stasis or on the way down. But one ought not write it off entirely. Azzurro is a BYO, and if you bring a thirty dollar retail bottle of wine as we did, you walk out the door paying eighty dollars, tax, tip and wine included. A similar meal in Due Terre (not a BYO) with a similar bottle of wine will cost $130 dollars, a not inconsiderable difference. Too, the ambiance and the noise level at Azzurro is far more conducive to either conversation or romance, and come late Spring, dinner in the outdoor garden is heaven.
So there you have it. At shootout's end, if price and ambiance are determiners, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend Azzurro for a meal where conversation and conviviality are paramount. But for food alone, Due Terre still stands while Cafe Azzurro seems headed into a prepaid plot in the Tombstone Territory cemetery. Ride 'em cowboy! Yee-ha!