Invite the Neighbors!

Communal dinners become a Jersey City baker’s recipe for success.

Photo by Melanie McLean.

By the time the dinner crowd arrives at Jersey City’s Made with Love Artisan Bakery and Café, the jazz duo is warming up in the front window, framed by twinkling white lights. Looking in from the sidewalk, it’s hard not to stop, cup your hands to the glass, and peek inside at the people sharing bottles of wine and tearing into steaming knots of fougasse bread. But if you didn’t make reservations weeks ago, you’d better keep walking.

This isn’t some exclusive party that requires knowing the right people or dropping obscene amounts of cash. Not in Jersey City—and certainly not on this gritty block defined by its gated storefronts, decrepit awnings, and anemic evening foot traffic. All you need to score one of the twenty seats at these twice-monthly communal dinners—aside from that reservation—is a love of good food and a desire to share your table with perfect strangers.

Celeste Governanti began hosting these dinners last fall, nearly a year after opening Made with Love as an organic bakery at 530 Jersey Avenue (201-451-5199, madewithloveorganics.com). Starting the business was a gamble. Sure, she’d trained in artisanal bread making at the French Culinary Institute and spent much of her childhood helping her mom whip up rum balls, sesame cookies, and other goodies. But even though she lives a mile away in Hoboken and had been hawking her baked goods at Jersey City farmers’ markets for months, she admits she “didn’t know much about the neighborhood.” Inspired by the European bakeries she visited during her past life as a fashion executive, she installed gleaming dark wood floors, retro schoolhouse lights, and a sleek marble counter. She piled it with her own rustic breads, outsized chocolate chip cookies, and apple-cheddar scones addictive enough to warrant their own twelve-step program. She arranged her pies and cupcakes seductively inside the front window. And then, after struggling—and nearly failing—to turn those gorgeous, authentic treats into rent money, she invited the neighborhood to dinner.

Governanti holds these festive, four-course affairs two Thursdays a month. The only thing you know about the set menu when you book your spot is which protein (beef, seafood, or poultry) the entrée will involve. One evening last fall, the $35 admission bought earthy wild mushroom soup, roast capon with Brussels sprouts, goat cheese salad, flourless chocolate gateau, and plenty of live jazz.

Outside, no one would mistake this block for Paris or Park Slope or even Hoboken. But things are moving in the right direction. The city has repaved the sidewalk—perfect for the moms who file into Made with Love at 9 am wheeling their pricey Bugaboo strollers. A high-end toy store has moved in next door. On weekends, couples park themselves on mismatched chairs, savoring latte, scones, and the New York Times. “I think the neighborhood will continue to transform, but only if the community supports the small businesses here,” Governanti says. Meanwhile, she supports the community, holding receptions for local artists, concerts by local musicians, and feeding her neighbors dinner two Thursdays a month as she hops from table to table with a wide smile and plates of piping hot fougasse bread.

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