Tucked into the northeast corner of Jersey City, just a few blocks from the lanes of cars and trucks creeping toward the Holland Tunnel toll booths, Hamilton Park is a true urban oasis, a world apart. Elegant brownstones on sedate, lamp-lit streets enclose the grassy square, with its gazebo, tennis courts, parents pushing strollers and kids shooting baskets. Overlooking the city-renovated park, the former St. Francis Hospital has been handsomely converted to condos. On the ground floor of the building, called Hamilton Square, stand two neighborhood anchors—the artfully hip shop Madame Claude’s Wine, and GP’s Restaurant & Bar.
This gratifying Italian restaurant, which opened last July, was three generations in the making. Patriarch James Politis emigrated from Greece during World War I and in 1934 opened what became a busy eatery in Hoboken’s Lackawanna ferry terminal. His son, George James Politis, the first GP, grew up working with his father and married Hoboken native Patricia Palmieri, a fine cook eager to share her family’s Neapolitan recipes with the world. In 1965, GP opened the Union Club in Hoboken, adding GP’s East atop the Palisades in Weehawken, just north, in 1975. In 1977, he changed the name to GP’s Restaurant and moved a couple miles farther north, to Guttenberg.
“GP’s was a community hub, a clubhouse for local pols, business people, Galaxy [high-rise apartment] residents,” George Jr., 41, told me in a phone interview after my visits. “I was five years old and didn’t want to be anywhere else. GP’s was my playground and my home.”
George Sr. died in 1999. His son, the current GP, runs both restaurants and lives next door to the Guttenberg flagship. “My dad grew up in his father’s restaurant, and so did I,” he mused. “Now my kids, Adriana and George III, are growing up at GP’s, too. Everything about GP’s is a tradition. And we still serve my mom’s recipes. People don’t lose their taste for good Italian food.”
Those time-honored recipes, occupying a menu niche called GP’s Classics, include GP’s Famous Meatballs, made with pork, veal and beef, with a touch of roasted garlic, velvety in texture and served in San Marzano tomato sauce. A toothsome, chunky Bolognese ragu—also made from pork, veal and beef and simmered four hours in white wine, milk and fresh herbs—makes the lasagna, another GP’s Classic, so engrossing you may lose track of conversation at your table.
The delicate sheets of pasta in that lasagna are made in-house, as are pappardelle sauced with duck ragu lush with confited meat and happy hits of crisped skin. Puglia-style orecchiette, also made in the kitchen, are memorably combined with meaty butterflied shrimp, lusty Calabrian red peppers and Italian sausage from Esposito’s in Cedar Grove. The result is peasant perfection.
The kitchen can be counted on for flair as well as finesse, thanks to executive chef Jim Galileo, 63, a 1979 CIA graduate who has worked both sides of the Hudson in his long and fruitful career. He manned the fires at the Ho-Ho-Kus Inn and later ran the kitchen at the upscale Oceana in midtown Manhattan. More recently he taught at the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan while consulting on restaurant openings. In between he fell back on his first love, woodworking. He met George Jr. two years ago and joined the new project.
“GP’s Hamilton Park was a challenge, because I wanted to honor the Guttenberg landmark but not reproduce its menu,” Galileo told me. “Italian food isn’t all pasta. It can be very rustic and seasonal. So I’m doing both, which is a good fit for this adventurous clientele.”
His menu offers many appealing ways to start a meal. Most lend themselves to sharing, like the selection of five different crostini—crisp toasts topped with escarole, fresh ricotta, garlic and oil; smoked salmon rillette, crème fraîche and capers; spicy sausage, caramelized onions, arugula and sharp provolone; prosciutto, white bean purée, lemon and olive oil; or smoky roasted eggplant, sweet peppers and 25-year-aged balsamic vinegar.
Another category, Small Plates, offers Gorgonzola polenta with grilled vegetables; garlic-strewn broccoli rabe with sausage and Calabrian chilies; and imported buffalo mozzarella with roasted peppers and grilled tomato. Add diverting salads and yet another category, Antipasti, which include excellent cheese and salumi samplers. This primo primi profusion can work as starters, side dishes or a meal of mini courses.
You won’t regret venturing deeper into the menu. GP’s skirt steak—Angus beef from DeBragga and Spitler, raised without hormones or antibiotics—is superb. The meat, though unaged, has beefy flavor to spare. These days it seems no menu dares turn its back on short ribs. Galileo enlivens his fork-tender entry (offered only as a special) with a red wine and jus reduction enriched with crème fraîche sparked with horseradish.
This seasoned chef also handles seafood deftly. Seared Jersey scallops remain sweet and wondrously tender over vegetable risotto and wild mushroom ragù. Norwegian salmon flaunts a crisp sear and rosy, moist flesh, the richness smartly offset by a roasted shallot-sherry vinaigrette.
Desserts, most made by Galileo, do suggest a usual-suspects lineup: cheesecake, a fudgy flourless chocolate cake, tiramisu, strawberry shortcake redeemed from ennui by an elegant aged-balsamic sauce. Then there’s the almond cake, a tour de force of chopped almonds, almond paste, white flour and an invigorating pear-prosecco crème fraîche sauce.
“Start with the best ingredients, and don’t over-handle or overcook them,” Galileo said. “Because you can’t fake it.” Whether as woodworker with plane or chef with whisk, that’s a fine craftsman speaking.