I tell my team, ‘We’re not reinventing the wheel, we’re just setting it on fire,’” says chef Paul Gerard of Antique Bar & Bakery in Hoboken. The wheel is the menu—Italian, but ramped up in spices, flavors and a certain gonzo gusto. The fire is literal, burning coal in a 400-square-foot, roughly century-old, porcelain-brick oven that can exceed 2,000-degrees and cooks almost every dish.
Brooklyn-born Gerard has been working in kitchens since he was 13. In 2015, he was cooking in New York when a mutual friend introduced him to Joseph Castelo, a filmmaker and second-generation Hoboken business owner. Castelo and his two siblings had just bought the venerable Antique Bakery. As local lore has it, Frank Sinatra used to have Antique’s baguettes (sticks, in local parlance) shipped to him regularly.
Ol’ Blue Eyes was long gone; Antique’s last owner, Ivan Rodriguez, was moving his baking to a smaller space in Jersey City, and Castelo was trying to figure out what do with his 30-ton coal-burning monster. He invited Gerard to have a look.
“I’ve cooked all over the world, and I had never seen anything like it,” Gerard, 49, says of the oven. The Castelos eventually decided to reopen Antique as a restaurant, with Gerard as chef and partner. They set about the lengthy project of revamping the space, keeping the historical parts intact, and dealing with permits and such. Meanwhile, Gerard, with help from Rodriguez, set about taming the monster. His mission: extend it beyond baking bread—“to use it the way I wanted”—to cook almost everything on the menu.
One lesson Gerard learned early was not to place his herb-coated “dirty” steaks directly on the hot coals. “They combusted,” he says, “filling the place with black smoke.” Eventually, he learned to utilize somewhat cooler spots at different distances from the hot hole—the fire in one corner of the oven. By the time Antique Bar & Bakery finally opened in February 2017, Gerard had nearly perfected the charred crust on his herb-coated steaks, cooking them in cast-iron skillets tucked into the coals.
Though he says he’s “still learning,” he’s become a coal-oven virtuoso, keeping the center of his chili-oil shrimp succulent by retrieving them from the oven after a scant 30 seconds. For his delicious wine-braised beef cheeks Parmigiana, blanketed in smoked mozzarella, he cooks slow-and-low, placing the pan in the oven at the end of night as the heat lowers, letting the meat braise for hours at 250 degrees.
The high-ceilinged back room of the old bakery—its rear wall covered with the oven’s white porcelain bricks—contains the baker’s tables and other equipment of the open kitchen and a thicket of tables and chairs, no two quite alike. Adroit waitstaff shimmy between the tightly packed seats, reeling off menu and cocktail highlights over the low roar of a rock-’n’-roll soundtrack.
For nostalgia buffs, the décor is itself a feast. The front room, the retail part of the bakery, is now also a bar/cafe with some food items for sale. Castelo, 49, and partner Rocco Ancarola (the “nightlife impresario”) have filled shelves and credenzas with knickknacks and pulp-fiction paperbacks and plastered the whole place with ’60s and ’70s movie posters, oil paintings, film stills, photos of musical legends and images from the Civil Rights Era. If you’re game, Antique’s cacophonous scene can be a blast; if not, it can be a bit overwhelming.
We dove in happily, sampling cocktails. The most intriguing was the very tart All the Way, made with vodka, burnt lemon peel and prosecco, and the earthy, bourbon-based Stone’s Throw From Manhattan, enhanced by smoked cherries.
Gerard personalizes and improves traditional Italian arancini (listed as rice balls on the menu). He starts by slow roasting shitake, cremini, oyster and porcini mushrooms on a bed of herbs, then rehydrates the mixture in a provolone-laced risotto with porcini dust before shaping them into balls and deep frying. His Greek fries, equally flavorful with oregano and lemon, were unfortunately dry.
One of my favorite appetizers is the simplest. Creamy mozzarella is pulled to order from a hot saltwater bath in the open kitchen and served with a topping: sometimes, olive oil and poached tomatoes; in our case, vin cotto and charred plums with rosemary and olive oil. The mutz is topped with a toasted half stick of Antique’s Italian bread, from Rodriguez’s bakery in Jersey City.
One could build a fine meal just from side dishes like the arancini, fresh mozzarella, cheesy al dente cauliflower with browned edges, baked yams with tangy chili-chicory jam, and blackened beets with goat cheese and walnuts sautéed in brown butter. For the vegetables, Gerard takes a peasant-style no-knife approach—roasting them whole in the giant oven, then tearing them apart by hand before adding spices and condiments.
Gerard’s knowledge of the oven produced a superb “hard herb” hanger steak, a juicy cut of 28-day aged meat in a coat of oven-charred rosemary, sage, thyme and oregano. It was served with a whole roasted head of garlic, the cloves golden, nutty sweet and as spreadable as butter.
A whole butterflied dorado also fared beautifully in a quick bake near the coals, giving the fish crispy skin with a delicate interior. It was topped with an engaging almond and red-pepper purée. Organic chicken, on the other hand, was not retrieved from the oven in time to keep the meat moist and tender, and a rich Bordelaise sauce on the side could not compensate for the overcooking.
The presentation of the market price ($52 our night) lobster pasta was more impressive than the eating: bucatini with chilis, cherry tomatoes and chewy lobster, capped with a split lobster shell filled with an overly bready lobster stuffing.
Lasagna edges, as Gerard calls them, were sublime: al dente reginetti pasta, which looks like curly-edged lasagna, lavished with a seasonal mushroom mixture and a rich brown-butter-and-parmesan cheese sauce.
Desserts are served family style, meaning you get a giant portion. This made the bread pudding a sensation as we fought over a luscious mountain of burnt-edged bread wedges soaked in a rich crème brûlée. We were less enthused by the overly gooey Daddy’s Decadent Cookie.
Antique is a welcome addition to Hoboken’s south end, near Second Street, mostly filled with Irish bars. When I mentioned to a local realtor that I was reviewing a place in that neighborhood, she excitedly guessed, “Antique?” and said she and her friends eat there a couple times a week.Click here to leave a comment
Price Details:Entrées and pastas, $24-$52; sides, $11; desserts, $13-$22
Ambience:Hip, happy, too-much-ain't-enough
Service:Knowledgeable but rushed
Wine list:Full bar, enticing cocktails
Antique Bar & Bakery122 Willow Avenue
Hoboken, NJ 07030
Hours:Dinner, daily; Brunch, Saturday–Sunday ♿
Bakery cafe hours: Thursday–Sunday, opens 8 am; Monday–Wednesday, opens at 2 pm
Bar hours: Monday–Wednesday, 4 pm–1 am; Thursday and Friday, 4 pm–3 am (one-way door at 2 am); Saturday, 10 am–3 am (one-way door at 2 am); Sunday, 10am–midnight
Restaurant hours: Monday–Wednesday, 5:30–10 pm; Thursday, 5:30–11 pm; Friday, 5:30 pm–midnight; Saturday, 10am–3pm (brunch) and 5:30pm–midnight (dinner); Sunday, 10 am–3 pm (brunch) and 5:300 pm–midnight (dinner)