Latest version of Recovery Room as good and welcoming as ever

Recovery Room's Asian chicken dumplings (Peter Huoppi/The Day)
Recovery Room's Asian chicken dumplings (Peter Huoppi/The Day)

In the ongoing processional known as Health Care, physicians, nurses, technicians and administrators might leave one hospital or clinic for another — or retire — but newer doctors and personnel segue in, and we take comfort in the idea that the process rolls on in perpetuity.

This is how I feel about the Recovery Room restaurant in New London. Originally named in punning fashion owing to its proximity of L+M Hospital and the many medical offices, the Recovery Room has undergone its own transitions in personnel and ownership and endured in sturdy fashion; in its own way, the RR might be thought of a perpetual and exemplary embodiment of the Hippocratic Oath of Pizza.

In context, it's been about a year since Joe and Angela San Juan bought the Recovery Room from Jack Cochran; who had acquired the RR in 2015 from Jack Cultrera; who in turn purchased the restaurant from Richard and Sheila Cash, the couple that founded the iconic dining spot in 1979.

Throughout, the Recovery Room has remained hugely popular — as well liked for, yes, its New Haven-style pizza as for its broader, beautifully realized Italianate menu and its comfy front-room tavern and convivial dining rooms. It's a reliable "night-out" spot for regulars from New London's Sixth District and beyond.

As someone who lives less than a mile from the Recovery Room, we've counted on the place as a trustworthy resource for take-out and dine-in cuisine since we arrived here 21 years ago — and I'm very happy to announce this latest version of the Recovery Room is excellent. This is good news because, not only did the San Juans take over last January but a big and potentially crucial change took place around Labor Day. The RR's longtime and iconic head chef, Luigi Sferrazza, left the restaurant for a new gig as catering chef at Connecticut College.

Chris Darling, who'd been in the kitchen with Sferrazza for a while, is now in charge of the kitchen, with able help from Jordan Adams and an efficient line-staff. They've maintained a high standard of excellence and incorporated a few tweaks to the menu, with some new dishes augmenting old and irreplaceable faves of yore.

In terms of décor, Cochran's football-centric touches are gone, and those stately burnished gold walls are now festooned with framed awards and reviews from across the ages. Here's what we experienced on a few recent visits to the "new" RR.

It's always wise to start with the Focaccia Bread appetizer ($3.95), which is one of the great bargains since humans walked upright. A pizza-sized rectangle of dough, tattooed with olive oil, Romano cheese and shreds of rosemary — then baked — could theoretically feed two adults (if one of them isn't me). In conjunction, my vegetarian wife, Eileen, likes the Gorgonzola Salad ($9.50), a mix of fresh greens, snap-to-the-bite cherry tomatoes, slivers of red onion, mushroom, and flakes of the titular cheese — all nuanced by a snappy house vinaigrette.

And, yes, pizza! What's more emblematic of the pizza maker's art than a pepperoni pie ($10.95). The Recovery version excels, with its bubbling underpinning of Romano and Parmesan, tangy red sauce and a touch of garlic. And, more so than in the past, the discs of tart pepperoni cover virtually the entire surface of the pie rather. Also still on point are RR creations like the Shrimp & Artichoke ($14.50, with neo-prawns and tart 'chokes), Thai Chicken ($13.95, with thick and sweet peanut sauce) and the Spinach & Gorgonzola ($11.95, with just-off-the-farm spinach, chopped garlic and 100% pure olive oil).

In terms of lunch-only items, the Recovery Room has expanded what was once very limited into a full Sandwich Board available from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The excellent half-pound Black Angus Burger ($9.95) is a holdover (and available at night now!) and stands with Fatboy's, On the Waterfront and The Social for "higher end" burgers in New London. Included sandwich options are a Meatball Grinder ($9.95, available in eggplant and sausage versions), Chicken Florentine and Brandon's Buffalo Wrap (all $9.95) as well as a Blackened Prime Rib ($11.95).

But watch for a sammich we saw on the daily specials board: Roast Beef with Gravy served on a ciabatta roll ($12.95). My pal Huoppi beat me to the punch and ordered it. His report: "Too often, the meat on a roast beef sandwich is stringy or fatty. This was the perfect middle ground of tender and not too thick, and topped generously with brown gravy — with enough to dip a few French fries in and still leave enough for the sandwich. It came with the customary lettuce, tomato and onion, and I shamed myself into including the vegetables as a concession to dietary balance. Next time, though, I might just indulge myself in the beautiful simplicity of meat/gravy/roll trinity."

From the appetizers section, the Asian Chicken Dumplings ($9.95) and Arancini ($10.95) are new items, and both were not only amazing but could respectively work as entrees. The easiest way to describe arancini is to call them risotto balls. The RR serves three HUGE balls of creamy rice held together with stringy (in a good way) mozz and coated with bread crumbs, and then places them atop a pool of rich, addictive sauce that seems more "pink vodka-ey" than the heavy and deep red sauce I recall from my folks' 1970s cacciatore.

The dumplings? Nicely crisped around the edges, potsticker-style, but still delicate and tender inside with tiny hunks of breast and a soy/ginger stuffing. I tasted more scallion than the advertised lemongrass, but no quibble. Really good.

From the Dinner Entrees department, we tried two old favorites to sort of "compare and contrast" and are happy to report they were both as fine as ever. Eileen loves the Recovery Room Signature Tortellini ($17.95), and I love that she loves it because it comes with grilled chicken that she orders on the side so I can eat it. Otherwise, she enjoys the tri-colored pasta, each holding a firm pocket of cheese, topped with a basil pesto alfredo sauce and shaved mozzarella. The sauce is the best of both worlds: The creaminess of an alfredo and the tanginess of the pesto. Together, it's a chewy explosion of textures and flavors.

And I continue to love Jillian's Chicken ($17.95), which features seared, butterflied breasts atop a mound of linguine, topped with interwoven strips of sweet red and orange peppers and bathed in a not-too-rich lemon-butter sauce. (The dish comes with mushrooms, which I avoid.)   

Finally, you're always going to get an introductory basket of warm, soft bread with a cheesy crust. Use the table's olive oil, grated parmesan and red chili flakes and craft your own greatness.

The Recovery Room is in good hands — yet again. Maybe it's bigger than all of us.

Recovery Room's roast beef and gravy sandwich (Peter Huoppi/The Day)
Recovery Room's roast beef and gravy sandwich (Peter Huoppi/The Day)

Recovery Room

445 Ocean Ave., New London

(860) 443-2619. recoveryroomnewlondon.com

Cuisine: Pizza and creative Italian

Service: Essentially, you're family when you walk in the door

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9:30 Friday-Saturday

Atmosphere: Casual with a quality that means you feel great about the place for big or formal occasions — or simply to drop in after softball practice

Prices: Very reasonable, with pizzas ranging from $9.50 to $14.95 and no entree higher than $27.95

Reservations: Not a bad idea to call ahead for large parties on weekends

Handicap access: Tight right-angle entryway and narrow pub aisle but certainly workable

Credit cards: All majors

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