Best of New Jersey: Food and Drink

We asked our readers to list their favorite places to eat and drink, and boy-howdy did they ever respond. Read on to find out which places our readers feel are the best in the state.

Brothers Anthony, left, and Lou Calandra with the bread our readers call Jersey’s best.
Photo by Peter Murphy.

With its firm surface and chewy interior, the Bagels-4-U bagel is a member of a vanishing breed—the traditional, hand-rolled, boiled and baked bagel. Reader Duquina Johnson, a Jersey expat, writes, “I come back from Pennsylvania every month and get a bagel from Bagels-4-U.” (11 NJ locations;
RUNNERS-UP: Sonny’s Bagels, South Orange; Hot Bagels Abroad, Clifton, Verona; Avalon Coffee Company, 7 NJ locations

“We produce it the Old World, European way, all by hand,” says Anthony Calandra of the loaves from Calandra’s Bakery, founded in 1962 by his father, Luciano Calandra Sr. The bakery uses a high-quality short-patent flour, which Calandra says yields superior taste. “Calandra’s hot bread reminds me of my childhood,” writes reader Camille Tonelli of Belleville. “Sundays my dad would always stop at the bakery after church for hot bread, and we would enjoy it with our lunch of pasta and meatballs. The best part was scraping up the last of the gravy with our bread.” (Newark, Fairfield and Caldwell;
RUNNERS-UP: Joe Leone’s, Point Pleasant Beach, Sea Girt; Cait & Abby’s, South Orange, Millburn; Panera Bread

The Losavio family of John’s Meat Market in Scotch Plains is well-known for dry aging its own prime beef. (If you buy elsewhere, “Don’t be fooled; ask to see where it’s stamped US Prime,” says Vincent, son of John, the 1939 founder.) Keeping up with the times, the family, now in its third generation of meat mavens, has added grass-fed beef and a Facebook page. Like the steaks, the service, too, is prime. (389 Park Ave; 908-322-7126;
RUNNERS-UP: Eden Gourmet, South Orange; Sickles Market, Little Silver; Okie’s Butcher Shop, Surf City

As with its bread, the key to the popularity of the Calandra’s Bakery cannoli is that it is handmade from the best ingredients. In addition, the shells (hand rolled around wooden cylinders and baked that way) are filled “20 times a day,” says Anthony Calandra. “We never fill it and let it sit.” (Newark, Fairfield and Caldwell;
RUNNERS-UP: Carlo’s Bake Shop, Hoboken; Rispoli Pastry Shop, Ridgefield; Del Ponte’s Bakery, Bradley Beach; Cipolli Cannoli, Collingswood

Trained in confectionary in Spring Lake and California, Amy Berry-Dunfee opened Red Bank Chocolate Shoppe in 2000. Everything is handmade, from truffles to signature creations like the Riley, a pretzel rod covered in caramel, rolled in marshmallows and Rice Krispies and dipped in milk chocolate. The shop prides itself on custom orders and boxed gift towers. (17 White St; 732-219-0822;
RUNNERS-UP: Enjou Chocolat, Morristown; Mrs. Hanna Krause Candy, Paramus, Toms River

At Watermark, overlooking the ocean in Asbury Park, owner Russell Lewis continues to expand “our culinary approach to the cocktail.” Watermark makes its own grenadine and ginger beer, squeezes all juices fresh and makes all its own vodka infusions, including (it’s about time!) a bacon-infused vodka. New this season is a full kitchen with an in-house chef. “Our food is still tapas style,” Lewis says, “but we have a bit more muscle in that department now.” (800 Ocean Ave; 732-455-3447;
RUNNERS-UP: Langosta Lounge, Asbury Park; Ninety Acres, Peapack-Gladstone; Martini Bistro & Bar, Millburn; Above, South Orange; Daddy O, Brant Beach

If Mara’s Cafe and Bakery in Denville has a mantra, it’s, “from scratch.” Those two words apply to virtually everything the Magley family serves. The popular cheesecakes (“not from a mix,” says son Ian), the gelatos, the cupcakes (the best-selling dessert), the soups. Even the coffee is roasted on the premises. For their 25th anniversary last year, Mara and Glenn Magley and sons Ian and Devan created an Anniversary Blend of Brazilian, Tanzanian, Kenyan and Guatemalan coffees. “It gives you the kick you need,” says Ian, “but it’s as smooth as it gets.” (25 E Main St; 973-625-0901;
RUNNERS-UP: The Fine Grind, Little Falls; Rockn’ Joe, Millburn; America’s Cup, Asbury Park; Grooveground, Collingswood; Starbucks

Getting bounced from the first round of the Food Network’s Cupcake Wars last year “actually worked out great,” says Mr. Cupcakes founder Johnny Manganiotis. “People were coming in just to say I got robbed. They try a cupcake and say those judges don’t know nothing.” Manganiotis recently added a store in Oradell to his store in Hackensack and the original in Clifton. At all three, red velvet and French toast are the best sellers. His aim is to open a store a year, and with three stores in three years, he says he is on track. (
RUNNERS UP: The Stuffed Cupcake Place, Nutley; Mara’s Cafe and Bakery, Denville; Sugarush, Red Bank; Kati’s Kupcakes, Moorestown

“We bake our own roast beef, turkey and ham, and we overstuff the sandwich,” says Anthony Calandra of the heroes at Calandra’s Bakery. “But the bottom line to any sandwich is the bread. We don’t use a sub roll, we use a loaf of our real Italian bread. It costs three times as much, but since we make it ourselves, we don’t have to charge a ridiculous price for it.” (Newark, Fairfield and Caldwell;
RUNNERS-UP: Millburn Deli, Millburn; Joe Leone’s, Point Pleasant Beach, Sea Girt

In its 13-year existence, Harold’s New York Deli in Edison has never changed its menu; it just serves more and more of the same, especially of its best-selling, house-made pastrami and corned beef—8,000 pounds of each a week. Roast beef and turkey sandwiches clock in tied for third. “Whenever the economy is slow, we’re busier because we give such good value,” says owner Harold Jaffe. “People walk out of here with doggie bags.” (3050 Woodbridge Ave; 732-661-9100;
RUNNERS-UP: Eppes Essen, Livingston; Irving’s Delicatessen, Livingston; Kibitz Room, Cherry Hil

Apart from the freshness of all the ingredients, the secret of Ibby’s Falafel rests with Mom. “We use the unique spices created by my mother years ago,” says owner Adnan Kwara, speaking of what goes into the chickpea-based falafel balls themselves. “And that recipe hasn’t leaked out to nobody.” Not a secret is the source of the restaurant’s name. Ibby is the nickname of Kwara’s son Ibrahim, who, like the restaurant, is 16 years old. (Jersey City and Freehold;
RUNNERS-UP: Beyond Pita, Montclair; Maoz Vegetarian, New Brunswick; Norma’s Mediterranean Restaurant, Cherry Hill

“All our french fries are made to order,” says Steve Ranuro of Biggie’s Clam Bar. “They’re never just sitting around.” Seasoned on the spot, Biggie’s waffle fries can be anointed with chili, cheese, cheese and gravy (a.k.a. disco fries) or “whatever someone wants,” Ranuro says. (Hoboken, Carlstadt;
RUNNERS-UP: Curley’s Fries, North Wildwood; The Windmill, 8 NJ locations

The gourmet grocery department of Sickles Market in Little Silver is special to owner Bob Sickles because it dates to when the business was seasonal and open-air, before the family built its 20,000-square-foot store. “It’s still a big part of the business,” he says. “I like to say we specialize in quality, freshness and range of product.” Range of product indeed. “They have such an incredible selection,” writes Oakhurst reader Holly Burtchaell. “I always feel like I am in a culinary playground when I shop there.” (1 Harrison Ave; 732-741-9563;
RUNNERS-UP: Garden of Eden Gourmet, South Orange; Market Basket, Franklin Lakes; Joe Leone’s, Point Pleasant Beach, Sea Girt

Need a break from summer heat? For our readers, there’s no better lick of love than Hoffman’s Ice Cream, a Point Pleasant Beach oasis since 1976. Hoffman’s listens as well as scoops. Two of last year’s most popular specials—Key lime pie and Cookie Monster (with Oreos and cookie-dough balls)—will return this year due to customer request, says manager Kim Karkovice. (Point Pleasant Beach, Spring Lake, Little Silver;
RUNNERS-UP: Applegate Farm, Montclair; Denville Dairy, Denville

People can be very particular about milk shakes. But whatever flavor or topping you like (chocolate syrup? fresh strawberries?), Holsten’s in Bloomfield understands. “There’s no right or wrong,” says Ron Stark, one of the owners. If peanut butter cups are your thing, you will flip for the new vanilla peanut butter with peanut butter cups shake, which Stark says tastes amazing because the cups blend so well in the mixer. (1063 Broad St; 973-338-7091;
RUNNERS-UP: Bobby’s Burger Palace, Eatontown; Pop Shop, Collingswood

Owner Milan Pavlovic attributes the success of Country Pancake House in Ridgewood to its “huge portions, very good quality—and a lot of variety.” Part of the fun is the names given to the various combinations, like Tropical Awareness (pineapple and coconut) or Halloween Feast (pumpkin, spice, granola, raisins). “The customers know when you’re cheating them,” Pavlovic says, reversely explaining why his place is always packed. (140 Ridgewood Ave; 201-444-8395;
RUNNERS-UP: Toast, Montclair; PJ’s Pancake House, Princeton; Uncle Bill’s Pancake House, 8 NJ locations

One way to gauge the quality of pizza in a state blessed with dreamy pies is how far a person is willing to travel to get it. Pete & Elda’s in Neptune City, known for its crackly thin crusts, inspires reader Christine Greer of Hoboken. “I drive an hour for it whenever I have a craving,” she writes. “It’s awesome.” Pete & Elda’s has a tradition—eat an extra-extra-large pie all by yourself, receive a free T-shirt. Drop in to see if you have what it takes. (96 Woodland Ave/Rt 35 S; 732-774-6010;
RUNNERS-UP: Star Tavern, Orange; Mack and Manco, 3 NJ locations; Arturo’s Osteria & Pizzeria, Maplewood; Pizza Fusion

Reasons to pop by Kelly’s Tavern in Neptune City on any given game day: great wings, bar pies, corned beef, pastrami and Reuben sandwiches—and 14 big-screen TVs stationed everywhere you look. Manager Chris Lynch says there is always “some kind of special going on” to tame savage appetites and thirsts. They even have a Reuben pizza for the adventurous. (43 Rt 35 S; 732-775-9517;
RUNNERS-UP: Miami Mike’s Sport Zone, East Hanover; PJ Whelihan’s, 8 NJ locations

Sushi Lounge offers delights for the novice and for the sushi sophisticate. Variety isn’t limited to food, either. The list of specialty martinis alone is reason enough to visit (especially for the primo deals of martini night). (Morristown, Hoboken, Totowa;
RUNNERS-UP: Taka, Asbury Park; Yumi, Sea Bright; Ikko Japanese Hibachi Steakhouse and Sushi Bar, Brick

Lest anyone think that a place with 50 wines by the glass and 250 by the bottle is a one-trick pony, Joshua Rosenberg, owner of Rosie’s Wine Bar in Garwood, is introducing a martini menu with up to 10 selections. Not slacking off on his strength, he is also launching wine-and-chocolate pairings while “staying on top of trends. Malbec is hot, Prosecco is hot, sauvignon blanc is coming up,” he says. (514 North Ave; 908-518-9463;
RUNNERS-UP: 16 Prospect, Westfield; Daryl Wine Bar & Restaurant, New Brunswick; Washington Inn, Cape May; Annata Wine Bar, Hammonton; Wine Loft

If the idea of an actual, physical visit to a wine shop seems, well, very 20th century—then consider a virtual visit to the Wine Library of Springfield. From the state-of-the-art website, you can order anything from the store’s vast selection of fine wines with the click of a mouse—and have it delivered by van if you buy five cases or more. The site also features the unique videos of gonzo wine connoisseur-turned-celebrity Gary Vaynerchuk, helping make Wine Library an indispensable resource for wine lovers locally and, indeed, nationwide. (586 Morris Ave; 888-980-WINE;
RUNNERS-UP: Gary’s Wine & Marketplace, Bernardsville, Madison, Wayne; Bottle King, 14 NJ locations; Moore Brothers Wine Company, Pennsauken

Eating wings while watching sports is a sport in itself, which is why Biggie’s Clam Bar opened a third location in Carlstadt last year near New Meadowlands Stadium. “We sell a ton of wings,” says Carlstadt general manager Steve Ranuro, who adds that customers appreciate the choice of three sauces: buffalo, barbecue and teriyaki. (Hoboken, Carlstadt;
RUNNERS-UP: Chicken or the Egg, Beach Haven; Tommy’s Coal Fired Pizza, Red Bank, Oakhurst

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