Posts Tagged ‘Italian’

The Recipe for Italian Restaurants in NJ

I couldn’t even guess how many restaurants in New Jersey classify themselves as Italian. They run the gamut from pizzerias that serve simple Italian dishes to cafes or casual, to upscale dining. It comes as no surprise since New Jersey has the second highest number of Italian Americans in the country at 1,503,637, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

I tend to lose interest quickly when I hear that a “new” Italian restaurant opened. Our market is saturated, but we all have a few favorites, and it’s often based on proximity. For some, quantity is a factor; others weigh quality heavier when comparing. I lean toward the latter, but location definitely plays favor. When my preferred casual Italian restaurant shuttered recently, a number of people I know were distraught – not because there is a lack of other choices, but because it had the formula for somewhere you can enjoy frequenting twice a month or more… quality food, hospitality, inexpensive and 10 minutes from home in Bergen County. I mentioned in a previous column that I may have found my rebound with La Cambusa in Garfield. Less than a month ago, however, a new Italian restaurant opened in Bergenfield, called The Recipe, on the corner of S. Washington and E. Clinton avenues.

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A repulsive feeling came over me – “oh, another glorified pizzeria serving lots of low-grade-cheese parmigiana dishes to try to qualify as an Italian restaurant.” But a coupon lured me in along with dangling carrots of location and cute appearance (the full-size windows allow you to see through as you drive by). My second foot in the door, and I was greeted with a warm smile and a “good evening.” That got off on the right foot. The menu is not extravagant but has basic pastas, veal, chicken, seafood and steak dishes, along with a creative list of specials, which only averaged $24.

20160219_204721The menu items were less. My first real taste of The Recipe came after the warm bread and the soup (choice of minestrone or chicken noodle that comes with an entrée) was the eggplant stack appetizer with beefy tomato slices, fresh mozzarella – the top layer slightly melted – thick breaded eggplant slices and a bed of mixed greens, all drizzled with a balsamic reduction. Thumbs up!

I usually test an Italian restaurant with a veal dish or a pasta/seafood combo. The first visit scored an 88 with a veal francese and artichoke hearts ($19). The second visit scored an 89.5 with the Linguini Del Mar red sauce (also $19), large butterflied shrimp, mussels, clams, calamari. The calamari was slightly overdone but not enough to detract from the rest of the goodness. More importantly, I requested very little garlic, and they listened! Finishing the meal with a decent cappuccino was equally important.

20160219_210831When one’s expectations are low or none is when the gems are discovered. I hope this passes the initial five-year business test because it has a solid B++ in my book. That could definitely go up as I order more.

Another recent Italian restaurant opening is Rugova in River Edge. It reopened the vacant building that housed Dinallo’s. Let us know how you grade these newcomers. Rugova is owned by the same people who have Dimora and Sear House, so they should be good at this.

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Sweet Finish Line on the Jersey Side

I will admit I am a bit of a dessert snob. After all, my mother is a baker by way of Europe. If I eat dessert out, I seek European pastries, cakes or pies. They tend to contain less sugar than American desserts and sit in your stomach a little less like cement. Italian bakeries are present (but not as abundant anymore) in New Jersey if you would like to pick something up and bring it home or to a friend’s house – Rispoli’s in Ridgefield, Il Dolce in Hawthorne, Gencarelli’s in Bloomfield. But what happened to the days of dining out and then going to a café afterwards for dessert and coffee?

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On a recent Saturday evening, I dined out at an Asian restaurant in Fort Lee. Asian restaurants tend to deprive us sweet snobs of satisfying our need to wrap up the culinary experience with a bow. They don’t allow us to divulge in the aroma of coffee, and they try to swindle us with orange slices that come across as saccharin. My first inclination is to be a disloyal Jerseyan and run to Greenwich Village to my favorite Italian pasticceria. After all, it’s 9 p.m. Where could I go for a sugar and caffeine dealer at this hour in New Jersey and actually relax? After seeing the traffic at the GWB, I begin to panic for my fix. My brain recalls a name and a town being mentioned to me and the possibility of the atmosphere I need right now. I search for Palermo’s, Ridgefield Park, enter it into my GPS and arrive in six minutes at a storefront bakery that is rolling up carpets. No! I must have made a mistake in my rushed state of mind. I search again and remember…Palermo’s, yes, but Little Ferry. In just another five minutes, which would’ve been impossible in NYC, I arrive at a palatial Roman-looking building with complimentary valet parking.

Palermo’s Bakery opened this location last year as Palermo’s café for people who long for an establishment where they can relax and socialize over dessert and coffee. Upstairs is the Cake Lounge, which according to the web site “is a contemporary restaurant, lounge and bar that is inspired by classic Italian cuisine with a sweet twist. As a brand extension of Palermo’s Bakery, known for their pristine cake making across the metropolitan area, the Bruno family created The Cake Lounge to better service their clientele with a unique Italian dining experience.” The baking for all of their locations is now done on premises here in Little Ferry. The young woman behind the counter noted that they are known for their cannolis, but I opt for a small work of art that was a light chocolate mousse tower, accompanied by a latte. Both were very gratifying. Palermo’s also offers light fare such as wood fire pizza and sandwiches.

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Fear not, for there are some other Italian bakery cafes that may be open after the dinner hour. Try Palazzone 1960 in Wayne or Calandra’s in Caldwell and you won’t have to pay a toll.

Is my cozy Italian replaceable?

It happens, unfortunately, that the guy or girl you’ve been seeing almost every weekend for nearly six years just up and leaves one day without warning. The explanation is not satisfying nor does it help to replace the void you feel come Friday night. It did happen – Bocconi, who was hospitable, visually appealing and provided high quality food at most affordable prices, slammed its doors in my face unexpectedly. I did get a phone call after the fact, but it hurt. Where would I get those qualities again without traveling too far to meet up?

I admit; I wasn’t 100 percent loyal, but we all need a little variety from time to time. I always returned to my Bocconi in Hackensack, NJ, though. It was home in a sense – our Cheers. My friends would often visit us as well. Something about his landlord forcing him out with high prices touched my compassionate side for a day, until Friday came again. My selfish side scrambled to find a quick replacement to satisfy my social hunger needs. Hey, don’t judge: After all, he left me! How long does one have to wait before replacing the one who left you high and dry? And what about all the mutual acquaintances we developed because of our relationship?

It was only a couple months prior I had met La Cambusa in Garfield, NJ. “Very nice, very affordable,” I thought, “but where’s the Stracciatella Soup? What do you mean you’re not a byob? How come you’re not coming over to me and making friendly conversation? You’re nice, but I don’t feel like you appreciate me yet. I like the food you’re putting in front of me and you’re a little more polished looking than the last one.” So I gave him a second chance out of desperation. La Cambusa is a contender.

Burrata Photo from La Cambusa Facebook

Burrata Photo from La Cambusa Facebook

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Photo from La Cambusa Facebook

The Burrata appetizer ($9) with grilled zucchini and roasted peppers on mixed greens was comparable to Bocconi’s. Can you really go wrong with the natural creaminess of burrata? It’s about the presentation. His homemade pasta was the proper texture: a chewy al dente. I don’t mean this in a negative way, but it reminded me of Play-Doh. Anyone who knows homemade pasta can relate to this as being properly cooked. The Fieno – straw & hay – ($17) with crabmeat, shrimp and peas in a pink cream sauce was actually not heavy and was dispersed with fresh seafood (yes, real lumps of crabmeat). It was one of the waiter’s recommended dishes after I asked for suggestions, along with an imported pasta dish of Pennoni with shrimp, clams and monkfish in a marechiaro sauce. Maybe I’ll dive into that on our next date. The specials were introduced to me, and while they were tempting, I really wanted to get to know the core of La Cambusa, since it was only our second date.

La Cambusa really deserves a chance. He doesn’t know my expectations from having been with Bocconi all these years, but certain things he just won’t be able to live up to (like the stracciatella soup). His dishes will obviously never be exactly the same. So in my mourning for the loss of my comfort-culinary companion, I am seeking a rebound place, not out of spite, just out of sheer need. If you decide you are able to come back, Bocconi, I will welcome you with open arms and return to you as well.

Dinner with a Side of Entertainment

Tableside food preparation in restaurants has been mostly a novelty of the past, as in the 70s and 80s; however, there appears to be a resurgence in New Jersey restaurants. Owners are trying to give us ever-demanding diners more for our money without having to add too much to their cost. People, in general, are easily entertained: a little mixing, a little fire and personal delivery from the preparer turns patrons’ heads, leaving others wanting that same special attention.clem 008

Most of us do not aspire to achieve sensory stimulation when ordering a Caesar salad, but if a cart comes rolling to the table, and the server carefully cracks eggs and combines the visibly fresh ingredients (rather than bottled dressing) to construct your salad – you feel privileged! The meal just became tastier and more memorable.

There are numerous rodizio restaurants, such as Rio Rodizio in Union, Rodizio Grill in Voorhees and clem 007 clem 006 clem 005 clem 003Casa Nova in Newark. But by definition, their meat carving is delivered as in all-you-can- eat format. The added entertainment while dining is predictable at both these and hibachi restaurants. It came as a pleasant surprise, though, this past Friday, when I found out a 99-year-old piano/singer friend of ours was playing at Il Cortina Ristorante. I hesitated because the address read “Paterson”, but the owners clearly understood this would cause trepidation and printed (Hillcrest section) on the web site. Without knowing anything about this section, I knew it meant a “don’t worry” section, and it is.

We walked in to find out that the staff of the former Bonfire in Paterson had been transplanted, and there was Clem at the piano, singing old standards. The music began our evening of entertainment-enhanced dining. After ordering a lobster and asparagus risotto and cappellini frutti de mare, all were intrigued at the preparation of a bowl of Caesar salad center room for another exclusive table. I wasn’t envious, because our house salads were a sight to behold, wrapped decoratively with a long sliver of cucumber. When other diners were on dessert, a cart came rolling out again. The flames are a sure-fire way to get attention and to get a dessert order from a table of people thinking they might be too full. It was bananas flambé served with vanilla ice cream. We wanted to feel just as important and placed an order too. Bocconi in Hackensack is another clem 011 Bocconirestaurant that performs this spectacle. They also filet branzino tableside, as does Il Capriccio in Whippany.

Maybe this added service is making a comeback in New Jersey, stepping up the experience of not-so-expensive restaurants and making them feel expensive. I can vouch that they are not doing it to distract you from food that isn’t good. They’re doing it because they know how to appeal to all the senses of their hungry customers, not just their sense of taste.

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Don’t Leave the East Coast if You Love Italian Food

You don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone (enter the 80s Cinderella song in the background). This adage has recently come to light regarding New Jersey’s and the Metro Area’s quality of food and abundance of, particularly, what we call Italian food.

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In the past couple of months, we have had friends visit from out of state – Texas, Oklahoma, California, Florida. Some were first-timers; some were original New Jerseyans who were wooed across the border for one reason or another. For the friends who left this state to avoid wearing gloves and scarves, they blissfully sat with us at Bocconi in Hackensack awaiting their simple dishes of linguini and red clam sauce and zuppa di pesce. The smiles overtook the room. While I thought it was partially our company, the confession came: “You can’t get good red sauce in California! Boy, do I miss this.” Who knew the combination of Jersey tomatoes and Italian-American cooks had such an impact on a New Jersey native’s taste buds?

 

OTTO 005In another instance, we ventured to New York City for a last minute invite on Fourth of July to meet with friends visiting from Oklahoma. We suggested Lupa. I offered to order the prosciutto for everyone to share. The woman with us asked, “What is prosciutto?” I nearly giggled, but politely assumed that she just never tried it growing up. Her husband, who has been to the East Coast, said, “You don’t understand. We can’t get prosciutto in Oklahoma or Texas.” Not that I eat it often, but I couldn’t wrap my brain around the concept of not having the ability to have it when the craving came on. He admitted mostly everything was barbecued foods. Oh those sadly deprived people. They quickly understood what they had (in NJ) and that it would be gone as soon as they left.

 

Blind Pig Logo 006Our plans for the Floridian, original Jerseyan, involved a walk through Harriman State Park, just over the North Jersey border, after we were barraged with complaints of the lack of properly cooked pizza in the sunshine state. The plan was to rescue his long-lost memory of crispy, thin-crust Jersey pizza by stopping for an early dinner at the ever-popular Kinchley’s in Ramsey.

A phone conversation with a business associate in Southern California ended with a joke’s punch line being Italian ices. There was silence. He said, “I don’t get it. What is that?” I explained, and the response was: “Oh, we have Hawaiian shaved ice.” I proudly said in disgust, “That’s not the same. Our ice is smooth and blended; yours is hard and crystallized with dye poured on top. Who wants to see that process?”

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228409_1023274422337_2524_nOn any given night if I want to go out for Italian food in Northern NJ, I can easily head to Good Fellas in Garfield, Luka’s in Bogota, Sergio’s Missione in Lodi, and of course, Bocconi in Hackensack. You may have 75-degree sunny weather you transplants, but just remember what it was like to be able to get a fresh Italian meal or a slice of non-grease-dripping pizza within a mile of your house any day you desire! And there’s further proof – when we were in Venice, Italy, we had lunch in a restaurant off the beaten path, and Sammy Hagar and his family were the only others eating there. After a brief conversation, Sammy said to us, “You guys have better Italian food in New Jersey than this place. It rocks!”

The Art of Italian Pastries

We all think of desserts in a different light. Some dream of deep-fried oreos, some envision a fondant-covered cake from Carlo’s Bakery. Me – I was brought up on good old-fashioned European-style Sunday desserts. We didn’t need colored sugar or a sweet toothache to get high off the delight of these desserts.

One could almost argue that they are the healthier version of desserts, usually laden with fruits. My mother’s signature is her pies/tarts: apple, pear, pecan, peach (see link above for more). Let’s just admit that Europeans are the rulers of desserts, and it could be quite a debate whether Italy or France would reign. When searching for special pastries that are American, we fall short in that we gear bakery items toIMG_6446ward children. When I close my eyes to get the connotation of “American bakery”, I come up with lots of unnatural colors, loads of sweetness, and icing – tons of icing – as in the no-textured messy dessert of cupcakes. Okay, so my connotation was extreme, but I think you will agree with my portrait of contrasts.

After taking my mother to an early Mother’s Day dinner at Bouley, I decided to take her the following week for a late afternoon dessert and coffee, and I knew it wasn’t going to be in New Jersey. Where do you take a woman from Europe who knows how to make some of the best classics and appreciates such high-end delicacies? I must ask another European who happens to own a restaurant, who happens to have worked at an upscale Italian restaurant, who happens to be Albanian (close enough). “Name two of the best places to sit down and have Italian pastries and coffee.” His response: “Roccos’ or Venerio’s.” So I drove her to Pasticceria Rocco on Bleeker.

We were seated in the back, which has an outdoor patio feel but is covered with a glass ceiling. Don’t look up because you will see dirt and leaves and sides of buildings. Just enjoy the natural light that peers upon you. Before our server came, we studied the cases up front to carefully make our selections. She couldn’t decide between the small lemon meringue pie and the multi-fruit and custard-filled puff pastry. Naturally, the only solution was to order both with a double espresso.IMG_6442 IMG_6443

Cheesecake is not usually my first choice, but the pistachio cheesecake whispered to me through the glass with its abundant chopped pistachio pieces. I watched my mother transform into a young child back at home, slowly consuming and savoring every bite as a rare treat. Time stood still for a little while as I glimpsed into the past.

 

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And Rocco’s passed her coffee test. Not only was the double espresso served in a small coffee cup, but the potency measured up to her standards. It is difficult to walk by all these desserts without taking some home “for Dad”. It was a good excuse to get another little taste the next day.

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Back to Bocconi again and again*

It’s that typical Friday again, and like an obedient one to my regiment, I head back to Bocconi AGAIN!

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It’s a typical Friday evening, heading home from work. I make the anticipatory and, at the same time, dreaded phone call: “Where do you want to have dinner?” There’s always an attempt to suggest restaurants to which we haven’t been locally, but at the end of the work week, comfort always seems to win. While many aspects of my life are regimented, I like my food and travel to be multifarious. So when the answer from either one of us is ultimately, “Let’s just go to Bocconi,” there’s an air of ambivalence.

We try to fight that response, but deep down, both of us know that our mouths and stomachs will end up

much more than satisfied and our pockets won’t be heavily emptied, which weighs greatly in the dining decision for many people. In order to reject the repetition in some fashion, I insist on ordering something different…

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