24 Franklin Ave, Ridgewood
Bright, airy trattoria with striking deep red walls and two orange-tiled, igloo-shaped, wood-burning pizza ovens made from volcanic rock and soil imported from the Mt. Vesuvius area. Gluten-free pizza also available.
The Story: You don’t know authentic Neapolitan pizza until you’ve eaten in Naples—or at A Mano (which means “by hand,” and is how they make everything). The crust of true pizza Napoletana laughs at usual terms of praise like “thin” and “crisp.” If a slice doesn’t seriously droop, it’s a disgrace to the pizzaiuolo’s (pizzamaker’s) art. When done right, as at A Mano, using imported Caputo extra fine flour, the crust is lightly chewy, almost fluffy, with tasty charred edges and a nutty flavor.
Owners Fred Mortati and Carlo Orlando, both with backgrounds in food importing, are sticklers in every way. The A Mano staff makes its own sauce from whole, peeled San Marzano plum tomatoes, and its own pillowy mozzarella from mounds of big fresh curds. All told, it’s why A Mano is one of only three pizza restaurants in the U.S. to be certified by both the VPN (Verace Pizza Napoletana) and the APN (Associazone Pizzaiuoli Napoletani).
428 Stokes Rd, Medford
Green walls with white oak trim, khaki-colored booths, and brass rails. Takeout staff (and the owner) love to banter. Delivery Thursday through Saturday only, BYO.
The Story: Back in 1968, Denis Branco Sr.’s new pizza shop on the corner of Stokes and Jackson roads was the only game in town. Though the historic township and its pizza offerings have since grown exponentially, Branco’s shop remains a standout. “My dad owned a hot dog stand in Wildwood; he wasn’t a pizza guy,” says Branco, 65. “So when we opened in Medford, I went out and learned how to make pizzas, picking up techniques everywhere I went.”
Now the student has become the master. Branco uses five different types of high-quality tomatoes. “When you buy cheap tomatoes you have to use tons of seasoning and cook ‘em to death,” he says. “With good tomatoes the flavor is right there.”
Instead of sugar, Branco adds carrots to lend a natural sweetness to the sauce. The cheese is a blend of mozzarella, provolone, and pecorino Romano Branco prepares in the kitchen. He says he sometimes wonders if people notice the details anymore.
“Sometimes I think they don’t appreciate it, and I get mad when I see the chains with people in line out the door,” he says. “I don’t get it. Their stuff is total garbage. But I’ll put my pizza against anybody’s. I know what goes into this.”
Brooklyn’s Brick Oven
161 Hackensack Ave, Hackensack
15 Oak St. Ridgewood
443 River Rd, Edgewater
Incongruous ski chalet (Hackensack) with arched ceiling and exposed beams. Checkered tablecloths, liquor license, cash only, no slices.
The Story: From a coal-burning oven, a soft blistered crust, wet and saucy on top, made with sliced fresh mozzarella.
1007 Hamilton Ave, Trenton
Family-friendly, family-run. The dining room walls are lined with photographs of celebrities and sports figures taken by the owner’s brother. Waiting room (where you’ll likely spend a lot of time if you don’t get there early on a weekend) decorated with historic photos of the DeLorenzo clan.
The Story: Rick DeLorenzo Jr. and his three children run this restaurant, which makes a thinner crust pizza than that served by DeLorenzo’s Tomato Pies.
DeLorenzo’s Tomato Pies
530 Hudson St, Trenton
2350 Route 33, Robbinsville
Funky old downtown storefront (Trenton) or stylish, modern suburban restaurant (Robbinsville), making Jersey’s first style of pizza. On-site parking in Robbinsville.
The Story: Owned and operated by descendants of the founders.
78 Albany St,
One of NJM’s Top 25 restaurants, Due Mari serves sophisticated seafood and pasta in a high-ceilinged, dark-wood setting with a 360-degree oval bar power scene. Last year it added a gas-fired Italian brick pizza oven.
The Story: Due Mari’s light, delicious, 12-inch bar pizzas (available in the dining room, too) are ecumenical. The sauce is made from three kinds of tomatoes, two from California and one from Italy. Soft, milky fresh mozzarella is used in the pizza Margherita. The others use a combination of whole- and skim-milk mozzarella. The dough is made with a blend of semolina and high-gluten flours and a somewhat lower than normal water content for added crispness. “It took two to three months to tweak the dough,” says executive chef and partner Bill Dorrler. “Now that it’s colder, it’s a whole ’nother ball game. I’m not an expert yet; I probably have 20 years to go.”
The pizza sauce ages for a day after it’s made, then a handful of pecorino-Romano is tossed in just before the sauce is applied. When the pizza emerges from the oven, it’s time for the final ecumenicism—“a Chicago-style trick,” says Dorrler. “We sprinkle a mix of oregano, pecorino, and parmesan, almost like a salt. It gives it a real nice depth of flavor. And you’re good to go.”
14 E Main St, Freehold
Narrow, brick-fronted, casual Italian restaurant with full menu, upstairs dining room, and bar. Outdoor seating in warm weather. Cash only, but ATM inside.
The Story: In 1921, Frank and Ester Federici, Italian immigrants, bought the Wolcott Hotel on Main Street in Freehold, eventually transforming it into a popular Italian restaurant. After sons Dante and Frank “Spat” returned from service in World War II, thin-crust pizza was added to the menu. The third generation of the family still serves that pizza today, and it is still one of the thinner crusts in the state. The surface is well browned, and the tasty sauce goes right to the edges.
563 Broadway, Long Branch
Old-fashioned storefront, family-friendly Italian restaurant specializing in thin-crust pizza. BYO.
The Story: Fred Scialla, a bread baker, opened Freddie’s across the street from its present location in 1944. Today it is co-owned and operated by Mark Brockriede, a cousin.
133 Clinton Street, Hoboken
Cheerful trattoria with checked tablecloths and white chairs. Open prep area in back makes it easy to watch your pizza being prepared and slipped into the super-hot, coal-burning oven.
The Story: Prepare to be served fast food—in the best sense—at Grimaldi’s, the sole Jersey outpost of a small Brooklyn-based chain. The coal-burning oven, one of the few in New Jersey, runs at 950 degrees, about 450 degrees hotter than most modern gas-fired ovens. Pizzas cook in a couple of minutes and emerge from the oven with puffy edges fringed in black.
Grimaldi pizzas are assembled in the manner of classic Trenton tomato pies—cheese first, crushed tomatoes second. The mozzarella is fresh, sliced, and pure white—not the more familiar aged, shredded, yellow. The sauce is semi-sweet and chunky and goes on after not only the cheese but the toppings as well. The crust is deliciously soft, chewy, and nutty. Available toppings include roasted red sweet peppers, a perfect pepperoni complement.
484 Sylvan Ave, Englewood Cliffs
Elegant, upscale restaurant, a bit of San Tropez near the Hudson, accented in shades of peach and lime.
The Story: Owner Tony Del Gatto and his chef, Alberto Leandri, roast whole fish and bake foccacia in their tiled, wood-burning oven, but they also turn out light, delicious, simple pizzas. Two favorites are the classic Margherita, made with fresh, imported buffalo mozzarella, and the wild mushroom pie with mozzarella and tomato.
586 N Franklin Turnpike, Ramsey
Dark, low-ceilinged, wood-grained roadhouse, with a giant Clydesdale statue over the front door. Tables are tightly spaced, packed on weekends. Display of Lionel trains in glass case divides bar from dining room. On-site parking. Cash only (ATM in side entrance).
The Story: At Kinchley’s, everybody is too busy eating ultra-thin-crust pizza to be tight-lipped. Everybody except George Margolis, whose father, Jerry, bought the place from the extended Kinchley family in 1986. George doesn’t want to say too much, and who can blame him? Kinchley’s crust may be the thinnest in the state, if only by a millimeter or two. But you don’t take a micrometer to Kinchley’s. Just enjoy the snip of each bite.
“The secret is in the recipe of the dough,” says Margolis, 32. “We don’t divulge anything more. There are a lot of people who try to copy us. Our kitchen runs like a factory. We use mechanical rollers, but the secret is in the dough.”
Margolis says the pizza “has been the same since 1947”—the year Kinchley’s Tavern, which dates to 1937 (though the building is older) added pizza to the menu.
Aside from the crust, Kinchley’s makes its own distinctive meatballs—little round ones, which sit on the pie like marbles. It also minces its broccoli instead of scattering the pie with chunky florets.
Jerry Margolis’ collection of O gauge Lionel trains, only a fraction of which are displayed in the restaurant, have been donated to the Mahwah Museum, which began showing them early this year.
La Casa Bianca
144 Main St, Whitehouse Station
Attractive, home-style Italian restaurant with picture windows facing Main Street. In restaurant, pies only, but slices sold at the counter, with its separate entrance, known as Giasuppe’s. On-site parking.
The Story: Dreaming of the pizza his grandparents used to make at their pizzeria in New Haven (around the corner from the famous Pepe’s), Paul Liscio asked his aunt for the dough recipe when he was about to open La Casa Bianca in Whitehouse Station. His aunt had worked with her parents in the New Haven restaurant and promised to look for the recipe. Meanwhile, Liscio, a CIA-trained chef, began trying to recreate it by trial and error. He says he tried 50 variations, finally arriving at a blend of semolina, regular flour, and high-gluten flour. Time passed. He forgot that he had asked for the recipe. Then one day his aunt came to see him, and as they hugged she whispered the recipe in his ear.
Liscio’s eyes widened. His experiments had led him to almost the same formula. He fine-tuned his recipe, and has been making pizza with ultra-fresh toppings and heavenly crust ever since.
Of normal thickness, Liscio’s crust has the chewy interior of fresh bread and a nicely browned surface. “I use very little yeast,” he says. “It means a slower rising but a better texture.”
He makes his own fresh mozzarella, mildly sweet and creamy for an excellent pizza Margherita. But the glory of La Casa Bianca pizzas is the wild mushroom pie, one of the three best specialty pizzas we sampled in our research. Liscio first sautés fresh portobello, shiitake, porcini, and regular mushrooms in olive oil and garlic, then spreads them thickly on the dough with sprinkles of fresh rosemary. Sautéing the mushrooms first exponentially intensifies their flavors and improves their texture.
Mack & Manco’s
On the Boardwalk at 8th, 9th, and 12th Streets, Ocean City (609-398-0720, mackandmancos.com)
Bright green vinyl stools, faux-wood tabletops, and bright, flashing Mack & Manco’s signs that light up every night as predictably as the stars shine. Ninth Street location open all year.
The Story: “It’s definitely all in the crust,” says Tony Polcini, general manager of Mack & Manco’s three boardwalk locations. “It’s a family recipe that hasn’t changed since day one.” Cousins Anthony Mack and Vincent Manco moved from Trenton to Ocean City in 1956 to open their first location at 918 Boardwalk.
These days Vincent Manco’s son Frank and his wife, Kay, run the operation. Good luck getting the details. There’s definitely something different going on with the cheese—a little bit smoky, a little bit gritty—which most people theorize is a blend that includes extra-sharp, white cheddar. Then there’s the sauce, a sweet, brightly colored concoction that customers can watch being swirled onto the pies in a smooth, spiral motion through a hose. It’s a flourish worth seeing.
And finally, there’s the crust—thin and crispy. The edges often are dotted with deliciously browned cheese bubbles. Because the crust is so thin the sauce and cheese come through with extra kick.
242 ½ Nassau St, Princeton
Tiny takeout shop with a brick oven and pizza boxes stacked to the ceiling. Narrow counter facing the front window. Cash only (but there’s an ATM).
The Story: Though a relative newcomer, Old World, which opened in 1997, turns out mighty fine pizza. Fresh ingredients include slivered portobello mushrooms; thin-sliced, fresh-made mozzarella; and Italian San Marzano tomato sauce rich with character (mildly spicy). The dough is expertly stretched for a light, pliant crust and a pleasingly browned surface. You can customize whole pies with extra San Marzano sauce and toppings including roasted red peppers, imported anchovies, prosciutto, and, for vegetarians, meatless versions of sausage and pepperoni.
Papa’s Tomato Pies
804 Chambers St, Trenton
Simple wooden booths, fluorescent lighting, framed photo montages of celebrity customers and regulars, wide-open linoleum-like floor in center of dining room. Ample street parking in front.
The Story: The oldest, continually operating pizza parlor in New Jersey. Thin-crust pies with chunky tomato topping.
Pete & Elda’s
96 Woodland Ave, Neptune City
Multi-roomed, wood-panelled restaurant with red tables, a large bar, lots of illuminated beer signs, and a placard that reads, “Free tee shirt if you can eat 1XXLG pizza by yourself.”
The Story: People hearing, “Hello, Carmen’s Pizzeria,” when they call here may think they’ve dialed a wrong number, but there’s no mistake. Present owner George Andretta’s father was Carmen, and back in the late 1940s, Carmen ran the pizzeria while—on the same site—partner Pete and his wife, Elda, ran the bar. Whatever you call the place, the kitchen turns out some of the tastiest ultra-thin-crust pizzas around.
And they give out a lot of free T-shirts—as many as 90 to 100 on a summer weekend—to people who eat an 18-inch extra-extra-large pizza on their own. The record is three XXLGs in one sitting, by Paul Fitzgerald of Bayville, whose picture went on the website and looks like he could fit comfortably in a medium-sized tee.
89 U.S. Route 46, Elmwood Park
Jersey roadside attraction meets bus station charm plus 1950s Uncle Sam kitsch. On-site parking.
The Story: Crunchy crust with puffy edges; lusciously saucy, light on cheese. Let cool before eating so it pulls together.
520 Station Ave, Haddon Heights (856-547-0030)
Small number of seats to the left of the takeout section. Old menu boards from the ’80s make it feel vintage. At dinner there is often a line out the door. No delivery.
The Story: At Ralph’s, the signature is the garlic and tomato pie, a square pizza (soft, like focaccia) topped with chopped plum tomatoes, fresh garlic, and shredded, low-moisture mozzarella. Simple, to be sure. But also incredible. “It takes a little longer to make than a traditional round pie because you have to fit the dough into the [square] pan and break up the tomatoes. But we think it’s worth it,” says Kathie Villano, who, with her husband, Ralph, has owned this small shop for 24 years. The rest of the pies are of the round, traditional variety.
The tomato sauce they use in their regular pie benefits from infusions of fresh basil grown in their garden. “As soon as it starts growing, my husband picks off the leaves and brings them to the pizzeria,” Kathie says. “And when we get close to the end of summer we harvest the rest, wash it, dry it, and store it in air-tight bags to use for the rest of the year.”
564 Franklin Ave, Nutley
Corner slice joint with nicely renovated exterior and adjacent formal dining room for sit-down restaurant. Come after school, the slice shop is full of kids. Evenings, families. No delivery.
The Story: When Ralph Pellegrino opened his pizzeria in 1961—the first one in Nutley—he hired a 17-year-old kid named Pasquale “Pat” Custode to help him. At the time, Ralph’s whole menu fit on his business card. In 1985, after Pellegrino died of a heart attack, Custode took over the business and continued to build it. But his respect for his first boss is so great that he still uses Pellegrino’s ovens and his old-fashioned mechanical scale. Custode also keeps two paintings on the wall that Pellegrino loved.
Ralph’s makes excellent individual thin-crust pizzas, but its treasures are the pies it makes for slices, which can be purchased whole. Unabashedly not thin crust (“We wanted to give the kids a little more to eat”), they are cooked twice—first just with sauce, then again with cheese and toppings. The result is a crust that is not just crisp, but crunchy and flavorful—“fully cooked through,” as Custode puts it. Uniquely satisfying.
92 Parsippany Blvd, Boonton
Friendly, high-ceilinged, wood-paneled roadhouse with bar. Widely spaced tables. On-site parking.
The Story: “Everybody asks me, ‘What do you do, and how do you do it?’” says owner Nick Bevacqua III, 53. “It isn’t a matter of any particular ingredient. It’s how we handle it. We don’t rush things.” For example, the dough is allowed to rise for 24 hours before it is used. “It gives it a bubbly texture in the crust,” Bevacqua says. “Texture is sometimes a little bit overlooked these days, so we give that special attention.”
Reservoir’s crust, not of the cracker-thin school, is pleasingly chewy with a crisp surface and plenty of bubbles around the edges. The sauce and cheese balance nicely. “We never changed the pizza from the day we started,” Bevacqua says, referring to his grandfather, Nicola Bevacqua, who bought the White Horse Tavern in 1936 and renamed it the Reservoir for Boonton Reservoir, which it faces.
Still, Reservoir is open to special requests. About ten years ago a customer asked for pizza with potatoes and bacon. “I took away the tomato sauce and added garlic and olive oil,” Bevacqua says. The potatoes are boiled, then baked, then baked again on the pie. The result, called Gatto di Patate (Potato Cat), may sound starchy and heavy, but it is actually moist and luscious, one of the three best specialty pies we came across.
Santillo’s Brick Oven
639 S. Broad St, Elizabeth
From the street, it looks like nobody’s home. Entrance is around the side of a narrow, drab residential building with (fortunately) a large sign out front. Takeout, local delivery, and cash only. Forbidding as it may sound, the neighborhood is safe and the owner is welcoming and highly personable.
The Story: Like his father before him, Al Santillo has devoted his life to making what may well be the best pizza in New Jersey.
Sciortino’s Harbor Lights
132 S Broadway, South Amboy
Big comfy restaurant with carpet, curtains, ceiling fans, and large bar.
The Story: “I tell all the workers all the time to give a full ladle of sauce, and go right to the edges,” says Louis Seminski, 54, who took over Sciortino’s twenty years ago from his mother, Mary, and her sisters. That instruction accounts for one of the distinctive qualities of Sciortino’s pizzas—a fuller layer of sauce than usual. Thick and slightly sweet, the sauce contains tomato paste and a blend of spices devised by Seminski’s grandmother, Frances, who founded the restaurant in 1934 with her husband, Paolo Sciortino, a barber, wrestler, and butcher from Sicily.
Pizzas get rubbery when mozzarella dominates the mix, especially when it’s of a pedestrian grade. At Sciortino’s the cheese is good and the sauce is lip-smacking. “We make our dough every day—that’s a big thing, too,” Seminski adds. The restaurant, formerly located in Perth Amboy, uses a high-gluten flour. Meatballs are homemade—two parts beef to one part pork, plus breadcrumbs, pecorino Romano cheese, salt, pepper, garlic, and eggs—another legacy of Grandma Sciortino.
400 High St, Orange
Family-friendly bar with small tables (push ’em together for large parties) and wooden booths. Décor: 1960s rec room. Video games for kids, sports on flat-screen monitors. Semi-open kitchen affords view of pizza-making—but don’t block the waitresses. On-site parking.
The Story: In the 1980s, when he was still a practicing attorney, Gary Vayianos used to come to his father’s restaurant, Star Tavern, on Friday evenings in his suit, change into whites in the back room, and “work the pizza ovens” until closing. Star, which opened around 1945 in the same location, was already renowned for its thin-crust pizzas when Vayianos’ father, Aristotelis, bought the place from the previous owners in 1980.
“They tried to buy it back from us a couple years later,” Vayianos says. “They realized they made a mistake.” But the Vayianoses weren’t looking back. They built the business while keeping the pizza “the same as ever—we wouldn’t change a successful recipe.” When Aristotelis died in 1988, Vayianos, a taxation specialist, decided to trade one kind of bar for another (plus a restaurant).
“I never regretted going to law school,” he says, “but every time you get a new administration, you get a new tax code. Nobody’s ever going to rewrite how to make a pizza.”
The way Star does it, Vayianos says, “is very simple. There’s not a lot of secret ingredients. People try to add too much to it. Our dough is hand-rolled. We don’t use a pizza press, we don’t toss them in the air to stretch them. We don’t let the dough rise too much. Because the crust is thin we cook it halfway on a steel pan, otherwise it would break apart. Then we remove the pan and finish browning the crust.”
Secret ingredients do come into play in the white clam pie, one of the three best specialty pizzas we encountered. Usually chopped clams are sprinkled on a regular tomato and cheese pizza. The Star white clam pie doesn’t use tomato sauce. “It’s actually a white clam sauce,” Vayianos says. “My father created the recipe. It takes about six to eight hours to cook up a batch. I don’t think it can be found elsewhere.” Tip from Vayianos: Squeeze fresh lemon on the pie.
1576 Route 206, Tabernacle
Family-friendly dining room with hand-painted murals of Southern Italian landscapes. In lively takeout section up front, pizza is made in the open. Located in the nondescript Yates Plaza shopping center. Slow down on 206 or you’ll blow right by.
The Story: “I have a recipe that I’ve stuck with, but sometimes you have to make adjustments here and there depending on the raw materials available at the time,” says Frank Caterina, 49, who owns Upper Crust with his wife, Robin. “For instance, some flours have a different protein content than others. Some tomatoes have different acidity levels.”
That’s where experience comes in. Caterina has been making pizza since age 14, when he worked at Pizza Joe’s in Vineland. Lessons in yeast fermentation, his preference for the flavor of vegetable oil over soybean oil in the crust, and the subtle ratio of sugar and salt in the sauce, have all led to one of the most well balanced pies in the Garden State.
The crust is light and fluffy, but firm enough at the bottom to support the weight of the generous amounts of cheese. The sauce, which Caterina considers the most important part of the equation, is a rich blend of sweet and zesty. Several gourmet options are available—like the outstanding Bellagio, a thin-crust pie topped with plump roasted red peppers, prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, garlic, olive oil, and generously strewn leaves of basil.
31 Cottage St., Bayonne
Low-ceilinged sports bar with rear dining room, also piazza-like patio for warm weather dining.
The Story: In 1939, Luca and Teresa Piscetelli, immigrants from Naples, took over the space that had been Barney Dwyer’s speakeasy and renamed it Venice Restaurant. “They started thin crust pizza in this town,” says their great-granddaughter, Debbie Smith, who owns the place today with her fiancé, Paul Marko. The recipe hasn’t changed since 1939—its continuing popularity is evidenced by the number of pies Venice ships out of town and even out of state. Last year they sent ten pies to Albany, New York; five to Pennsylvania; and five, frozen, to Florida.
Venice also fulfills customer requests for specialty pies, no matter how bizarre. Recently they created a “disco fries” pie topped with French fries, mozzarella, cheddar, and brown gravy. The customer comes in for it once a week.
Click on the links below to read more pizza stories from our dining issue:
By submitting comments you grant permission for all or part of those comments to appear in the print edition of New Jersey Monthly.