Italian cuisine

Forget Chicken Parmesan — These NJ Restaurants Serve Real Italian Food

Zuppa di pesce with clams, mussels, calamari, shrimp, lobster tail, scallops, spicy marinara and basil at Saly G's.

In the local food scene, many central Jersey restaurateurs know me as the girl who gobbles up anything. However, I have a truly shocking secret to confess, which is often followed by doubt and dismay.

I do not like cheese.

No, not all cheeses – I’d say yes to a bite of Pecorino and even settle for a little Parmigiano-Reggiano sprinkled over my pasta. However, thick, melted mozzarella or – heaven forbid – American cheese? I don’t even like seeing him in person.

When I studied abroad in Florence, Italy as a student at Monmouth University six years ago, one of the first questions people asked me (seriously) was “How are you you handle the cheese?” And I admit that I was nervous. But I soon found out after getting to the other side of the pond that it was no big deal. In fact, it wasn’t even a problem.

READ:Catherine Lombardi in New Brunswick passes on grandmother’s Italian cuisine

READ:Passion and tradition reign in this hidden Italian restaurant

That’s because the hearty, cheesy dishes that we identify as Italian here in New Jersey aren’t really Italian at all. Chicken Parmesan? You will never find it on the menu of a 100% authentic Italian restaurant. Even Chicken Marsala and Chicken A la Francaise – dishes we frequently order when dining at an “Italian” restaurant – are purely Italian-American creations.

What people normally think of as Italian-American dishes — dishes with red sauce — usually started in Naples, but authentic Neapolitan cuisine is actually much lighter, more delicate, and less meat-centric.

Joseph Gramaglia, chef and owner of Saly G’s restaurant and tavern in Warren, often brings in customers who ask for chicken parmesan, and he’ll happily make it for them, even if the dish isn’t on the authentic Italian menu. of the eight-year-old Neapolitan restaurant named after Gramaglia’s father, Salvatore.

The pesto cortecce at Saly G's.

“I think the United States has simplified Italian cooking to the essentials,” Gramaglia said. “In a pizzeria or other Italian-American restaurant, you’ll find Americanized versions of Italian dishes, like spaghetti and meatballs, that don’t even exist in Italy. Italian cuisine is based on extremely fresh ingredients, such as seafood pulled straight from the sea before a meal. It’s a totally different atmosphere.

Gramaglia’s parents, Pina and Salvatore Gramaglia, were born and raised in Italy. So he grew up with the traditional Neapolitan-style dinners that his parents and grandparents cooked every night. These are the main inspirations that the talented chef, who has no formal culinary training, used to craft the menu at Saly G’s.

“We cook homemade pasta and everything is done by hand, and our techniques are exactly as we would do things in Italy,” said Gramaglia, who also makes tomato sauce at the restaurant from an 80-year-old family recipe. years. “However, here we don’t cook traditional dishes – everything is taken to another level and made more sophisticated.”

Gramaglia believes that New Jersey serves authentic Italian cuisine of very high quality overall, with the best restaurants being his own, Fiorino in Summit, Fascino in Montclair, Senza Restraunt in Bayville, Da Benito in Union, and Osteria Morini in Bernardsville.

And he also thinks there’s enough room in the culinary scene for Italian-American dishes.

“Even coming from what I do, sometimes I also want a piece of pizza or a French chicken,” he said. “It’s very important to New Jersey and people would be a bit lost without it. They need that simplicity in life – you don’t always need those ornate, gourmet plates.

Like Gramaglia, Mark Pascal, co-owner of Stage Left Steak as well as Italian restaurant Catherine Lombardi (named after her grandmother, the family matriarch known for her Neapolitan-style home cooking and coveted Sunday dinners) in New York Brunswick, grew up with home-cooked meals. Italian dishes with “the slowest chicken”, free-range and antibiotic-free meats, organic vegetables and homemade sauce. Today, these are the same values ​​he brings to his 11-year-old restaurant which bears the photos of his family and the recipes passed down.

A cozy fireplace helps create a warm atmosphere at Catherine Lombardi in New Brunswick.

“Back then, we weren’t thinking about factory farms or cows being fed antibiotics,” Pascal said. “Here we try to use all of these same ingredients and that translates into the food, and then people wonder why it’s more expensive and why it tastes better – it costs more to do it the right way. “

You’re sure to taste that difference in every Catherine Lombardi dish, including the sauce. The restaurant cans 5,000 to 10,000 of its own tomatoes each year and at any one time at least 50% of the sauce used in the restaurant’s dishes comes from these tomatoes.

Catherine Lombardi also hosts several events throughout the year showcasing Italian traditions, including a special blue crab and spaghetti dinner just hosted on Sunday; fresh blue crabs are tossed in marinara and served over spaghetti. This fun and messy family staple was a lifelong practice for the Lombardi family and it’s been given new life at the restaurant.

Real family photos at Catherine Lombardi.

However, Pascal doesn’t see the same traditions being honored at most New Jersey Italian restaurants.

“I think there are some great places out there, but unfortunately most buy their canned Italian food from an 18 wheeler and that’s just not how the food was born,” he said. -he declares. “It comes from grandma making her own sauce and doing everything at home.”

Some of those restaurants that Pascal says are bringing those time-tested Italian traditions back to their New Jersey customers are 3 Guys From Italy in Belleville, Scotto’s Pizza (which closed last year after operating for nearly 50 years in Clifton) and Razza in Jersey City, where Pascal “would eat three times a week” if it were closer to home.

But Pascal also recognizes there’s value in these no-frills Italian-American meals — he, too, is frequently asked by customers to cook chicken parmesan and other Italian-American favorites, and the restaurant will. with pleasure as long as its chefs have the ingredients and the time.

A dish at Catherine Lombardi.

“You can’t go out and spend $20 on a bowl of macaroni every day,” he said. “Sometimes I also eat pizza for lunch. It’s fast and cheap, so I definitely understand why they exist and why they’re popular.

Restaurant and Tavern Saly G’s

Or: 169 Washington Valley Road, Warren

Contact: 732-667-7400, salygsrestaurant.com

Price range : $19 to $48 for an entry

Catherine Lombardi

Or: 3 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick

Contact: 732-296-9463, catherinelombardi.com

Price range : $19.95 to $44.95 for a main dish

Jenna Intersimone at Catherine Lombardi's blue crab and spaghetti dinner.

Jenna Intersimone’s “Destination Jersey” section appears on Tuesdays. His blog “Life Aboard The Traveling Circus” is at LifeAboardTheTravelingCircus.com. Tweet it on @JIntersimone or email him at JIntersimone@GannettNJ.com.