Hoboken clocks in at just over one square mile, but the Hudson County city packs a plethora of authentic Italian food into its tiny domain. One way to taste a smattering of it—from hand-pulled mozzarella to crusty, coal-fired loaves to pillowy cannoli cream—is to pound the cobblestones with Avi Ohring of Mangia Hoboken! Food and Culture Tour.
Ohring, who has called Hoboken home since the mid-1980s, started taking tourists around his city 10 years ago. He advises groups to start hungry and wear comfortable walking shoes. Our party of seven, who converged at the Hoboken PATH station on a sunny, early-fall day, gladly complied. During the 3 1/2 hour outing, we briskly followed our leader down promenades crammed with strollers and dogs, along rowhouse-lined side streets and through quaint alleys. We walked the streets with gusto, jaywalking like true Jerseyans.
The adventure, which costs $48 per person (including food tastings), began at Carlo’s Bakery, of reality television’s Cake Boss fame, where we skirted the crowds and ate our cannoli in the fragrant back alley. Ohring imparted a little history (the building has been a bakery for more than 100 years), and divulged Carlo’s secret cannoli ingredient—lard (vegetarians, take note).
Back on Washington Street, Hoboken’s main drag, we wove through young families enjoying the weather, shop owners greeting regulars, and college sports fans heading for a pub. Ohring led us fleetingly past the popular Luca Brasi’s Deli, explaining, “If we went to all the Italian delis in Hoboken, this would be a seven- or eight-hour tour.”
We trekked instead to Fiore’s Deli, whose sign proclaims, “Famous for our mozzarella.” Indeed, patrons were lined up to the establishment’s well-weathered door for the chewy, juicy house specialty, eaten on its own or in a special roast beef and gravy sandwich. We intently devoured a tray, the tranquility broken only when a slice I was holding accidentally slipped to the ground.
All was forgiven by the time we got to Dom’s Bakery Grand, last of a small chain of traditional Italian bakeries in Hoboken. In the bare-bones interior, only a few pieces of tomato focaccia and two flaky, cream-stuffed sfogliatella, or lobster-tail, pastries remained by the afternoon. A passing local graciously informed us that the bread keeps well in the freezer. But ripping hunks from a loaf still warm from the coal-fired oven is superior. (Consider bringing your own olive oil for dipping, as Ohring did for us.)
Between food stops, we also got a fair serving of history; Ohring pointed out the vacant lot on Monroe Street where Frank Sinatra’s birthplace once stood, a few of the once-abundant Italian-American social clubs still in use, and plenty of formerly industrial buildings turned condos.
More mozzarella awaited us at Lisa’s Italian Deli on Park Avenue, where 73-year-old Anthony “Tony” Lisa, whose family has owned the shop since 1971, had the shelves stocked with canned Italian tomatoes, peppers, pasta and other imported goods. But the sandwiches, panini and fresh mozzarella were the draw; in fact, Tony had mozzarella boss embroidered on his chef’s jacket. To prove it, he gracefully pulled a ball of curds into a neat braid, and another into a bundle to be aged and stuffed (called scamorza). Entertained, we dug into a tray of heroes laden with housemade pesto, arugula and ham, salami or fried eggplant (and, of course, fresh mozzarella). Meanwhile, Lisa told family stories and explained how Hoboken has changed over the last 50 years. One of our party was so charmed, she said she’d return as much for his company as for his sandwiches.
What’s an Italian food tour without pizza? Back on Washington, we piled into Grimaldi’s Pizzeria, of Brooklyn fame; this is one of their two Jersey locations. Seated at the bar, my food-tour comrades and I didn’t have to be convinced to make room for a thin, crispy slice topped with more fresh mozzarella.
Rounding out the cheese-and-bread-filled journey, we headed to Sweet, a charming corner bakeshop, for mini red-velvet cupcakes. We took them up the block to Empire Coffee & Tea on Bloomfield Street for a caffeine pairing. The family-owned business offers dozens of signature roasts, as well as drinks to go.
Three hours and about one and a half walked miles later, Ohring returned us to Carlo’s Bakery, this time out front. There we stood, mozzarella-sated but already plotting to return for more.
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Mangia Hoboken! tours run at 2 pm every other Saturday, April–October; tours are limited to 16 people. Go to hobokenfoodtour.com for information and reservations.