You might start going to Saltwater Simply Italian in Margate for the gnocchi — possibly the best around — but take one bite of their rustic pizza and your eating priorities will likely change.
If you are familiar with the history of the Salvo family — the husband-wife team of owners Chef David and Lori, who balance managing the front of the house with her real estate career, you know their former Margate, Longport and Somers Point restaurants — including Presto — and their famous marshmallow-size, cheesy gnocchi that literally melt in your mouth.
So you can cry tears of joy that the gnocchi — in many incarnations — is back at Saltwater. But more on that later … because we need to talk about the pizza.
Is it the best in South Jersey? Time will tell, but even though the recipe took years to perfect and is less than a few months old, I can tell you that it’s right up there with the best.
It’s also different than most South Jersey pizza. First off, it’s square, made in small batches, cooked in a pan for some awesome crispiness and is thick like Sicilian, yet remains light and airy.
At first the $20 price tag for an old-school cheese pie with marinara or the Old Style Classic may make you flinch, but after you see the size of it and then taste the quality, it will seem like a bargain. In fact, spend the extra $2 and get the white version with rosemary and prosciutto, or the Italian vegetable, another white pie with roasted red peppers, sautéed red and green peppers and grilled eggplant with a balsamic drizzle.
“David worked all winter on that pizza dough,” Lori says. “Every morning he would get up at the crack of dawn to get over to the restaurant and play. We live in the area and he said we need a good pie down here. He worked tirelessly over the gnocchi until he perfected that and we became known for that, so he thought it was time to up his game and do the same for pizza. There’s a passion in the work he does. He is so different than everyone else because he works in small batches. There’s bowls all over the dining room, and he uses a big wooden spatula and mixes it. He’s a craftsman … my dough boy. He’s a dough expert … a mad scientist with the dough.”
Saltwater — which has double meaning for salting your water before cooking pasta and the restaurant being located in a beach town — is in the former space of Tipsy Taco & Tequila. Not much has changed in its layout, but the décor is now modern Italian instead of kitsch Mexican. A huge bar is where the “Dough Boys” do their thing during the day, making both the gnocchi and pizza dough daily.
But there is also a Dough Girl in the equation: the Salvos’ daughter Samantha, a Stockton University student who helps hand roll and cut 1,000 gnocchi a day while also helping with the pizza dough.
“She goes there every day and makes the dough with him,” Lori says. “It’s a time-consuming process, which is why we can’t even open for lunch because they are making dough all day. My husband is a glutton for punishment, but he wouldn’t be in the business any other way. He grew up in the business on his dad’s hip after school and on weekends, and he says he learned things you could never learn in cooking school.”
Now, back to that gnocchi. Most are praised for being light as a feather. Since Saltwater’s are made with a blend of four cheeses instead of traditional potato, they are a little more dense but remain light and pack more flavor in one bite than any gnocchi you ever had. Enjoy them as an appetizer — toasted or with blush sauce — for $12, or save them for a filling entrée, with options including Passelli ($25) with prosciutto and peas in a blush sauce; ragu ($22) with marinara, a turkey meatball and sausage; Sicilian red ($22) with hot peppers, Sicilian olives, capers and eggplant; or Longport ($30) with shrimp and jumbo lump crab in a blush sauce.
“David says the gnocchi is Mick Jagger and the pizza is Keith Richards,” Lori says. “You want to be known for a signature dish, but because of what he does, we now have a tidal wave with the pizza coming at us. It’s a good problem to have.”
And although Saltwater could probably survive — and thrive — just on their gnocchi and pizza, it offers much more.
Apps include Sicilian calamari ($16), mussels red or white ($14), clams white ($14) and Italian roast pork ($11) topped with sharp provolone and long hots.
Their cutlets also looked amazing coming out of their kitchen. Thin and crispy and available as turkey ($21), eggplant ($20), chicken ($21) or veal ($25), diners have their choice of parm; Milanese, arugula tossed with olive oil, lemon, shaved Reggiano and a drizzle of bruschetta; 9th Street, red roasted peppers, fresh mozzarella and basil, balsamic drizzle; and spicy blush with prosciutto, spinach and cherry peppers in a blush sauce.
“The cutlets are insane,” Lori says. “He breads them fresh every day and fries them in a pan because he’s very old school. We don’t have a soup of the day. We have soups cooked in a skillet per order. There’s nothing left over at the end of the day that he puts in a pot and calls soup of the day. Every soup is made to order, and that kind of demonstrates his approach to cooking. Foodies get it. They always say the funny thing about David is that he’s built — he can bench 300 pounds — but then he comes here and makes the most delicate gnocchi and cooks with such finesse.”
Other options can be found in the “Bowls” section including classics like spaghetti and meatballs ($17) with turkey meatballs; spaghetti and crab ($30) in a red or blush sauce; chicken ($22) or veal ($26) cacciatore or Sicilian style with garlic, lemon, white wine, hot peppers, Sicilian olives and capers.
“The simplest things in Italian cooking are the hardest to make right, and that’s where David’s skill set comes in,” his wife says. “He always says how he starts with a blank slate every day. We don’t have freezers. It’s about the simplest things with the simplest ingredients done right. It might look weird that we have chicken cacciatore on the menu, but anyone who tries it says it’s the best they ever had. He cooks so clean. You feel good after eating a big meal.”
If the crowds of people flocking to Saltwater, along with very kind social media posts, are any indication, Margate is glad to have the Salvos back cooking their favorite Italian foods.
“Because I am in the real estate business, and I knew this building was distressed financially, I was able to get a deal no one could get done,” Lori explains. “I told David we should grab it, and we did. We knew we needed a good, casual place that doesn’t bang you over the head. People kept asking us when we were going to open a restaurant, so we took a break and came back at the right time under the right circumstances. And the response has been extraordinary. People say the food is ridiculous. I always say David makes it easy to work the front of the house because I just receive one compliment after another. I just say that we are a casual, imperfect place serving the best food.”
That’s hard to disagree with.