Lola Latin Bistro owner Nick Borzone, standing, talks with patrons at his cozy restaurant with a pan  Latino outlook. (Photo by Mitsu Yasukawa)

Nick Borzone is a nut. A lovable one, mind you. The guy with the booming voice going from table to table at Lola Latin Bistro? That’s him.

“I want to touch everyone,” he says, laughing. “I want to know what you like; I want to know what you don’t like so I can make changes.”

The owner of Lola has made changes of his own over the years. The restaurant is located in a rambling building that once housed a neighborhood bar, across the street from the Brainy Boro post office. Borz one ran Cafe Abbraci in that space from 1994 to 2008, then sold the business.

“I was done (with the restaurant business),” says Borzone, who once owned a trattoria in Somerset. “But when I put my name on those papers, I knew I had made a mistake.”Borzone got a chance to correct it last year, when Aglio, the successor to Cafe Abbraci, folded. Borzone then bought back the business, but instead of returning to Italian food, he went the Latin route.

“I want to pay homage to the entire Latin global cuisine,” he says. “We needed something exciting here, and it was an untapped market.”

Lola is a three‐way collaboration. Borzone plays host. Juan Zaldivar is both business partner and dessert maker. The chef is Grace Castagnetto, who worked at The Frog and The Peach in New Brunswick. All three had a hand in the menu.

The interior is cozy and intimate without being stuffy. It’s like eating in someone’s house; instead of Grandma bustling about, it’s Nicky. The soft warm rolls, cloth-swaddled in cigar boxes, are irresistible; we ate two boxes.

All three appetizers excelled. The Peruvian ceviche (tilapia with lime juice, yellow corn and bell peppers, $10.95) tasted fresh and feisty. The camerones ajillo (garlic shrimp, $10.95) are a decided improvement over that overcooked, over‐salted Ironbound staple. The costeillas de puerco (baby pork ribs brushed wi th mango sauce and Latin spice, $10.95) boast beautifully tender meat and a husky sauce made to order for those rolls.

For entrees, I unsuccessfully tried steering my friend Brian away from the tilapia, which gets my vote for most boring fish dish on earth. But Castagnetto transforms it into something near-magical, a chorizo-encrusted fish ($19.95) with shaved fennel, roasted fingerling potatoes, garbanzo beans and a red onion salad. Brian’s wife, Brooke, ordered the pollo con cilantro y jugo citrico (cilantro citrus chicken with coconut rice and green onions, $17.95).

“Extraordinary – a flavor explosion,” Brooke said. Yes, it is. I couldn’t get enough of the puerco griglia con jalapeno (marinated tenderloin pork with shredded Latin slaw, roasted fingerlings and jalapeno sauce, $21.95). All the entrees are healthy portions; you’ll probably end up taking some home.

Other appetizers include sopa de frijoles negro (black bean soup with queso fresco, $6.95), crab meat sa lad Napoleon (with crisp tortilla, guacamole and spicy mango drizzle, $11.95) and calamares fritos con lima (crisp calamari with greens and chile lime aioli, $10.95).

Other entrees include mariscada con chorizo (shrimp, scallops, clams, mussels, calamari and chorizo wit h roasted vegetables, tomatoes and lobster broth, $22.95) and salmone mango caliente (pan-seared sal mon with a spicy mango glaze, cool pineapple salsa and polenta cakes, $21.95).

There is a selection of tapas (most priced at $4.50), from pork brochettes, fried chiles and sauteed mushrooms to Spanish meatballs, seafood empanada and chicken in garlic and oil.

The desserts ($6.95 each) came as a mild letdown. The apple crumb cheesecake was dried out. The tres-leches (three-milk cake) was agreeable enough. Best of the bunch: the coffee creme brulee, sweetly satisfying.

But overall it was a sublime meal, and a memorable evening. “Latin cuisine,” Borzone says, “is on the map.” You’ll want to put the centrally located Lola on your New Jersey restaurant map. Where should Pete eat next? Call him at (973) 392-1765 or  email pgenovese@starledger.com.

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