Hearty, plentiful fare — Ron Jillian's thrives in its new home

By Rachel Forrest

Hampton Union, Thursday, January 31, 2013

[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast online]

The sleek, modern building that now houses Ron Jillian's was a big lure for me. I'm a sucker for modern architecture and for creative repurposing of existing buildings, in this case, bank to restaurant.

While Ron Jillian's is not quite as "homey" in decor as it once was when it was just across the street, the homey feelings remain in hearty and plentiful (and plentiful again) Italian fare in a lively restaurant and bar served by friendly and exuberant staff.

You're going to enjoy a heck of a lot of food whether you sit in the large bar area, which is surrounded by table,s or in this odd L-shaped dining area that is cut off from the bustle but that still surrounds the bar. You'll find many "townies" here, families of local people and lots of camaraderie at the bar. The beer list is fairly mundane although there is a Tuckerman's and a Smuttynose on tap and the cocktails are very good. I had a maple Manhattan that was excellent. The wine list has some nice Italian and domestic bottles, all great food wines.

I love Italian food from the more subdued regional kind one might find at Enzo in Newburyport, Mass., to something more robust like that found at Radici or Cafe Mediterraneo in Portsmouth. Here, you'll find some of that, but also many very robust dishes of the Momma D's or The Rosa variety, southern Italy influenced cuisine that comforts the soul and the senses.

Be prepared to eat hearty and to take some home. We started with a personal brick oven pizza with just sauce and cheese ($7.50). The sauce is excellent and the cheese nicely balanced. The crust could have been crisper especially since it is brick oven style. Brick ovens yield that nice light char and crunch that was missing here. On another visit I had a dish of sauteed mussels blanco with garlic, white wine and herbs that were plump and delicious ($10.50). The seafood chowder is very thick and creamy. Use caution. You're going to eat much more. The salads, specifically our caesar salad, didn't have utterly fresh lettuce but it's a nice palate cleanser.

I had a special, the beef braciole stuffed with creamy ricotta ($15). What looked like two roulades of tender stewed beef was filled with rich cheese and topped with roasted carrots and tomato sauce. It was like a stew braised for hours served over pasta but made even more decadent by the smooth, milky ricotta inside. I could only really eat a quarter of it and took much home. It was very tasty, but I wished there was a bit more separation between the beef and the other ingredients because it was more like a stew than separate rolls.

The bolognese sauce here is excellent. I could tell great care went into the sauce of pork, pecorino, sirloin and a touch of red sauce. We had it with a dish of nicely cooked fettuccine that still had a nice bite to it ($15.50). I also liked their Frutti di Mare with large shrimp, scallops, calamari and mussels with a simple toss of plum tomatoes, basil and garlic ($22.50). The freshness of the seafood is impressive and this was a rather light dish.

Desserts are also huge. I had a wonderful Berry Mascarpone cake that had sweet berries shot through. The cake was actually more bready and light than traditional cake so the overall texture and flavor was delightful. They don't make that there, but their tiramisu, which they do make, is rich with cream and espresso.

Ron Jillian's is one of those warm and welcoming local spots that keeps a modern urban feel to it. The bar is a fantastic hang-out for the area where you'll get into a conversation with the neighbors and enjoy plentiful classic Italian American dishes served with a smile.

Rachel Forrest is a former restaurant owner who lives in Exeter. Her column appears Thursdays in Go&Do. Her restaurant review column, Dining Out, appears Thursdays in Spotlight magazine. She can be reached by e-mail at rachel.forrest@dowjones.com.

Dining Out: Ron Jillian's, 853 Lafayette Road, Hampton, 929-9966, www.ronjillians.com

Hours: Open Tuesday-Saturday from 11 a.m.; Sunday from noon. Closed Monday

Food. *** and a half. Very large portions of comforting Italian fare

Service **** Upbeat, helpful and enthusiastic

Atmosphere *** and a half. Could be a little "warmer" in the dining room but the bar area is bustling.

Overall *** and a half. Hearty Italian fare in a lively, fun setting.

If you like this review, you'll like:

Momma D's Casa Di Pasta, 347 Shattuck Way, Newington, 431-6511, www.mommads.com.

Now in a new, bigger space with plenty of banquet room and fun

Cafe Mediterraneo, 119 Congress St., Portsmouth, 427-5563, www.cafe-mediterraneo.com/

Great bar, great food.