So of course this is the Johnny Meatballs blog and I am going to start off by saying that if you haven’t tasted my meatballs, they are the best around. I know there are a lot of meatball places out there now but I stand behind my recipe as being numero uno and if you haven’t visited my cart or bought a six-pack in Corrado’s, do it today, you won’t be disappointed. Today I am going to showcase some other eateries which probably make lots of good stuff, however I am going to specifically highlight the thing that they are known for.
I learned to cook growing up from my mother, grandmothers and aunts, the male figures in my family were never in the kitchen. My father took me out to eat as a kid and from him I learned a lot of things from eating out on what’s a quality place and what’s a place not to dine at. Those tips started with the bread basket…if you get bad bread or frozen butter, that was already a bad sign that the meal was probably going to be subpar or going to be missing something. But he instilled in me the mentality of choosing a place’s “signature dish,” selecting the food that they are known for because it was the best.
You may think that might be a downfall because if a place is great for one thing, their other dishes must be great too and therefore you are missing out on trying the rest of their menu items. As an adult, I do make it a point to change things up when I go out to eat, and I have a rule that if I go out with my wife and kids, we all have to order different things and then taste each other’s plates. But I always looked forward to visiting a handful of establishments as a kid in New Jersey and whenever I would attempt to try their particular specialty elsewhere, I found myself comparing it—and most of the time, it didn’t stack up.
A lot of people remember joints for nostalgia alone and still go to them even if the food is only so-so. These are indeed nostalgic picks, but the difference is that the foods make the trip worth it for a first-timer who may not have any other connection to it.
First off, and I talked before about meeting Guy Fieri here on his New Jersey Diners Tour is the White Manna (Main Street, Hackensack), a place I still say has the best burgers anywhere. A small hole in the wall that serves small sliders—I average about 5 washed down with a large chocolate shake. So these are simple but spectacular and the grill that has been cooked on for years imparts all the flavor. They just slap down a ball of meat—unseasoned—top it with sliced onions and cheese, and then scoop it off onto a squishy Martin’s potato roll with a squirt of ketchup and a handful of crinkle-cut pickles on the side.
There was one restaurant which I would have eaten in twice a week if possible, but this was more of a once a month treat. JD’s Steak Pit (Main Street, Fort Lee) was THE PLACE for ribs. I’m talking about the most tender, juicy Canadian baby backs in the most delicious bbq sauce you could imagine. I tried so many times to find out the sauce recipe but it is top secret. There was just something about the sweet and savory sauce that covered these fall-off-the-bone ribs. We always got them with their ultra-thin French fries and crunchy zucchini sticks with horseradish sauce. I’m telling you, these are the best ribs in the world, I don’t know what their trick is, but they are absolutely scrumptious.
Another monthly treat was getting fried calamari. My mother never made it at home except on Christmas Eve, and we went to two places for it. In Jersey, it was always Patsy’s (Bergen Boulevard, Fairview), where you’d get a HUGE portion of crispy hand-cut squid rings with plenty of tentacles mixed in and thick, pasty red sauce with extra chili flakes for dipping. My father loves the tentacles but I prefer the rings and you can order them to come with extra tentacles or none at all. In New York, we went to Vincent’s (Little Italy) usually late at night, and we always debated on which place was better.
Down the shore, there is a place called Harrigan’s Pub (Baltimore Boulevard, Sea Girt) and when I got this dish I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. Well, actually it was sizzling hot and I was amazed when it came to the table. The open faced “Famous Sizzling Sliced Steak” was thin slices of perfectly cooked medium-rare steak, on top of garlic butter toast with frizzled onions on a plate that is literally steaming hot with smoke pouring from the bottom. I had never seen such a thing before and the taste is as out-of-this-world as the presentation!
Another steak sandwich that was just exceptional was the filet mignon on a fresh Kaiser roll from Crow’s Nest (Route 17, Hackensack) which was like butter—and also served with a ramekin of herb-infused butter. It is a soft, succulent explosion in your mouth that you will crave the next day.
Finally today, there was one pizza parlor that we always perpetuated—Donna’s Pizza Center (Broad Avenue, Palisades Park), and they have been around since the ‘60s in my old neighborhood. There’s just something about their tomato sauce and the way the bottom is always perfectly well done in the Bari oven. It’s basic American style pizza but there is nothing ordinary about it. Last I checked it was around $16 for a pie—which is definitely higher than elsewhere—but well worth the price. The Sicilian is fantastic as well.
-NEWBIES BUT GOODIES-
OK, so I shared my picks from my childhood, now here are 2 joints I went to recently where I ordered and enjoyed two sandwiches which were OFF THE HOOK, and I will definitely be heading back just for them…
Agostino Deli (Main Street, Manasquan) has this chicken cutlet sandwich called “The Dean Martin” that I already devoured twice in the past month. Now you may be saying, what’s so special about that? Well, it’s all in the peppers. The cutlets are flat-pounded, perfectly breaded and fried topped with fresh, housemade wet mozzarella, and then the peppers finish it off…extra sweet roasted red peppers like none I have ever had before. It’s almost as if they are cured in honey or brown sugar, but you still get that roasty char in there for a counterbalance.
If you like lobster rolls, or never had one before, pop in to Toast (Bloomfield Avenue, Montclair). It’s like an upscale dinner with everything from red velvet pancakes to what I enjoyed—and this summertime classic was one of the freshest and yummiest I ever had. A little mayo and lemon complimented the ice cold lobster chunks on a split roll with garlic butter to dip. A tad pricey but a treat that can’t be beat.
-IN MEMORY ONLY-
Here’s a few places that are sadly no longer in business but I figured I would share them anyway…
When I wanted a hot dog as a kid, there was one place we’d go: Callahan’s in Fort Lee. Their foot long dogs with crisp casing and Gulden’s mustard just rocked. It’s a shame that this New Jersey institution is no longer around, but Hiram’s—their long-time next door neighbor/competitor is still there.
For bagels, we went to Cliffside Bagels in Cliffside Park. Sunday mornings the line was out the door, these were made how bagels should be—boiled and then baked and no matter what time you got there, you’d get a hot one. Nothing better smeared with Temp-Tee whipped cream cheese.
One place that made the best hero sandwiches was Lucy’s Deli in Palisades Park. They supplied the Italian hero for hero day in my school, which was ham-salami-provolone with oil and vinegar on a soft roll. I also loved their roast beef sandwich, which came on a large seeded Semolina roll with shredded lettuce cut like angel hair—the first time I ever had lettuce like this and Hellman’s mayo. Always teamed that up with chips and an Arizona iced tea.
I’d like to say one last thing before I leave you today, it really amazes me when I post food pictures of my lunch and people from across the country say how unbelievable it looks and how they “can’t get that” where they live. I can almost see the drool coming from their text. But I am the one who can’t believe that folks in Texas and Montana and wherever else can’t get basic stuff like broccoli rabe or soppressata. I had one lady ask me what fresh wet mozzarella was and I was astonished. The dry supermarket blocks of Polly-O are apparently all she knows and that really makes me sad.
I made a remark to a transplanted Bronx friend of mine now living in Ohio where I told him to pack his bags and come back home when he complained about how people there don’t understand or appreciate good food. He told me that he would but he had family there and looking back, that might have been insensitive on my part to say. Everyone has a different reason for leaving their birthplace and relocating but I personally couldn’t do it. All my family and friends are right here but so is all this great and diverse cuisine. For some, packaged coldcuts and Olive Garden is all they know so I can’t blame them for thinking that stuff is acceptable. But when you experience the best of the best as a kid, that other stuff is considered subpar. I guess some could get used to it but I don’t think I could move away and eat subpar meals on a daily basis. So I will keep up with my food porn for my meddigan friends and transplanted New Yorkers every time I eat!
PLEASE NOTE: I have no affiliation whatsoever with any of the establishments I listed today and there are dozens more I could have listed which I am sure will be part of a future blog…I encourage you to take my advice and check these spots out! Hint, hint, Men Who Dine!
Wednesday I will be heading to the Bronx to battle Giovanni Paolo in a meatball throwdown on the “The Matzah Ball and Meatball Show.” This program will air Thursday morning at 1am on Manhattan Channel 34 & Fios Channel 33 and then it re-airs on Saturday at 1am on BronxNet 68 and Fios Channel 33. It will also be on youtube so stay tuned!!!