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.
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