A tom’s river upscale eatery offers an antidote to pizza profusion, complete with posh drinks and a crackling nightlife scene
by Jessica Jones-Gorman • Photos By Amessé Photography
After owning and operating Caffe Italia, a popular Italian restaurant in Toms River for more than 20 years, Vincenzo and Cathy Varriale wanted to expand their business and offer something different to a community already saturated with BYOB eateries and casual pizzerias.
“Our original intention was to expand and offer a bigger facility for parties, opening up banquet rooms that would hold 50 to 100 people,” noted Cathy Varriale, describing the origins of Aqua Blu Kitchen and Cocktails, which she opened with her husband and daughters Cristina and Lina in October of 2011. “We wanted something upscale, with a very eclectic menu, something completely new and unique for this area.”
So they crafted a menu full of handmade pastas, including paccheri with roasted Pomodoro sauce, whipped ricotta, and basil and orecchiette with sausage ragu, broccoli rabe, and oven-dried cherry tomatoes. Thick rib-eye steaks and plates of fresh seafood also made the cut.
“These are not the typical dishes you find in Toms River,” Varriale pointed out. “We pride ourselves not only in having the best quality meats and ingredients, but also in a menu full of items very different than those of the average pizzeria and casual eateries currently dominating this area.”
Launched in a building which had housed another restaurant for almost 50 years, the eatery underwent a complete renovation before the family celebrated its grand opening.
“We totally changed the look,” Varriale said. “We used a lot of different woods, put in three new bars, created multiple dining rooms with seating for 400 people—using shades of blue in every area to fit in with our name. There’s a lounge with a sort of Greek feel, chandeliers, and an open kitchen in the main dining room. There’s also booth seating and a built in banquette, which all blend together to create a modern look and feel.”
And although it was not the owners’ original intention, after Aqua Blu’s official launch, the expansive space and diverse menu created a nightlife buzz in the otherwise quiet town.
“The bar sort of took off and ushered in a very polished type of evening crowd,” Varriale said. “So now we feature entertainment five nights a week and attract a 30-and-over crew with a variety of events,” such as acoustic guitar performances, doo-wop acts, and Sinatra covers.
“Once a week Gerard Esposito sings Sinatra and the oldies, and we feature an Italian theme with pasta and wine,” Varriale said. “We also have an all-night happy hour, with entertainment by [alt-rockers] 18th and Addison. There’s acoustic performers, reggae bands, even trivia nights…we offer a lot of different options.”
But the food, crafted fresh each day and designed seasonally by Chef Matteo DeMarco, is the restaurant’s true attraction.
“We have a raw bar which is amazing, complete with ingredients that are handpicked and delivered daily,” Varriale said. “Many of our items are also locally sourced, and our produce is comprised of some of New Jersey’s very best.”
Swordfish is served with maitake mushrooms, creamy polenta, and champagne grape salad, Red Snapper Roulade is accompanied by crispy baby artichokes, gremolata oil, and preserved lemon aioli. There’s also a Hanger Steak smothered in a chimichurri sauce, while a 12-ounce Strip Steak is served with broccoli rabe and smoked potato puree. An in house pastry chef creates fresh confections on site, while the menu of cocktails is decked with top-shelf brands, and the extensive wine list features many varieties unavailable at local liquor stores.
“Our goal was to provide some great dishes that were extremely different, unlike anything that the residents of Toms River had ever seen,” Varriale concluded. “And I think our menu and our nightlife really represents that.”
Kitchen & Cocktails
3410 Route 37 East, Toms River
732.270.1180 / aquablurestaurant.com
Cuisine: Modern American
Hours: Sunday-Thursday 12 p.m. – 11 p.m.
Friday-Saturday: 12:00 p.m. – 12:00 a.m.
All major credit cards accepted
Bar: Full bar
Private Parties: Yes