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Jersey City real estate agents sometimes refer to the area around City Hall as the “new Hoboken.” In fact, the whole downtown area—from Van Vorst Park to the Hudson River and encompassing the Grove Street, Pavonia Avenue, and Exchange Place PATH stations—has been growing exponentially hipper for years.
An unwavering attraction in this area is Marco & Pepe, a tiny, bustling corner restaurant with folding French doors that open in summer. Since it opened six years ago, Marco & Pepe has functioned as a clubhouse for a young, insouciant crowd with restlessly inquisitive taste—one reason M&P stocks more than 40 beers.
Owner, founder, and Jersey City resident Ralph Rodriguez, a Wall Street consultant and native of Seville, says his goal was “to recreate the comfort of a neighborhood tapas bar in Spain, where people go to drink, snack, and meet up with friends.”
In renovating what had been a grocery store, he exhibited brilliant restraint. “We peeled off the wallpaper,” Rodriguez recalls, “and underneath were decades of yellow and light blue paint. It looked so great we just left the paint there.” Instant abstract expressionism. Add a soundtrack ranging from Pearl Jam to Django Reinhardt, and you have unbeatable karma.
Marco & Pepe’s food is as deftly tuned as its vibe. Chef Ben Christie had a tough act to follow when he took over in April 2006—his predecessors had made the kitchen one of the best in the state. But Christie, a 27-year-old Coloradan who has been cooking professionally since his teens, has technique and instincts beyond his years.
Some of Christie’s starters are straight off a tapas menu, like tiger shrimp swimming in caramelized garlic oil as bold as a toreador. Equally Iberian are Spanish cheeses and a charcuterie plate featuring peppery, house-made albondigas (Spanish meatballs) made of sirloin and pork. Christie prepares plump mussels in a French-style white wine broth strewn with slivers of hot Thai sambal peppers and crunchy, smoky, sautéed pancetta (Italian bacon). This is a bravura rendering of a brasserie classic.
Each of the half-dozen entrées is available as a half portion—a wallet- and waistline-friendly idea that more restaurants should emulate. But the food is so tasty that full-size orders are hard to resist. Christie does right by M&P classics such as the mac and cheese—ear-shaped orecchiette baked with Gruyère, chèvre, crème fraîche, mascarpone, and sautéed pancetta—and filet mignon, enhanced by an intense reduction of pinot noir, balsamic vinegar, shallots, and butter.
Even diners tired of same-ole same-ole seared tuna should taste Christie’s rendition, served with a sensational sauce niçoise, a buttery Mediterranean elixir perked up with olives, fresh tomato, and capers.
Sous-chef Santos Xochittua is adept at freshening familiar desserts. He flavors his aromatic crème brûlée with sweet basil; his panna cotta gets an irresistible sauce of orange, butter, sugar, and cream.
But while the kitchen rates three stars, the front of the house does not. On two visits, I noted a dearth of welcomes and waiterly eye contact, and a surprising ignorance about details of the food.
Marco & Pepe thrives on a lively decibel level. But the manager’s lamentable tendency to raise the volume of the music when the place is full—which Marco & Pepe often is—forces diners to shout. At that point, any relaxation factor is lost. It would be a shame to see this neighborhood gem, which does so much so well, droop into “whatever” mode.—Karen Tina Harrison