HG is a pasta lover and has happy memories of a number of pasta dishes consumed, with gusto, in a variety of locales. In Venice: Linguine a la Vongole (clam sauce); Linguine con Seppie (juicy cuttlefish with their own ink). Bologna: Spaghetti Bolognese (meat and tomato ragu). Bergamo: Pasta with shavings of white truffle. Belleville,N.J.: Cavatelli in a sauce of ricotta and tomatoes. Served at Belmont Tavern as a prelude to Stretch’s Chicken. North Arlington, N.J.: Fettuccine Alfredo prepared table side by the maitre d’ in a spacious (name forgotten) restaurant. And, of course, BSK’s pasta with pesto. BSK’s splendid carbonara and matchless Spaghetti a la Norma (eggplant). Linguine with Prince Edward Island mussels and clams. BSK has delighted HG with these wondrous dishes during their 54 years of co-habitation in New York, Montclair,N.J.; Golden and Denver, Colorado; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Vancouver, B.C; Fire Island; Nantucket and Prince Edward Island. Recently, HG has discovered a new pasta favorite at Santa Fe’s Saigon Cafe, home of splendid Vietnamese pho. At the suggestion of waitperson, Hua, HG switched from pho to Chow Fun. Broad noodles, cooked al dente, are stir fried in soybean oil with sliced onions, scallions, bean sprouts and steamed tofu. It is served with a plate of garnishes: Mint, flat leaf parsley, cilantro and jalapeno peppers. This is health conscious eating at its best.
Brilliant Daughter Lesley R. is a lovely bundle of talents. A talented writer (she was a prize winning reporter and editor). A devoted wife and mother. And, of course, an extraordinary daughter. She was a super-cute precious tot with a head of Shirley Temple curls. Now, as an adult with a head of blonde curls (plus a bit of grey), Lesley’s talents have extended to the kitchen. One night, Lesley and BSK collaborated on a garlic scapes (from Ocean Mist Farm) pesto. A creative collaboration, indeed. A match for the best basil pesto. Profesore Massimo R., Lesley’s husband, called upon his Italian heritage to cook linguine to a hard to achieve al dente texture. Perfect starter. This was followed by a Portuguese influenced pan roast of clams and spicy sausages (the Cajun sausages from Prince Edward Island’s Taylor Meats stand at the Charlottetown Farmers Market). Onions, garlic, olive oil, tomatoes and white wine enlivened the roast. It was served over lush smashed PEI potatoes (Smashed with a bit of butter, garlic, parsley and garlic scapes). Hearty eating after a day in the sun and sea.
When HG/BSK lived in Montclair, N.J., their favorite eating place was the eccentric, lively, down to earth Belmont Tavern in Belleville, a town adjacent to Newark’s heavily Italian North End. The bar (whose bartender would belt out an operatic aria at impromptu intervals) was under one ownership. The kitchen was owned by a guy named Stretch. On the menu was a dish called Stretch’s Chicken. It was a wow. Tender, crisp skinned chicken in a rich sauce of vinegar, anchovies and garlic. Huge portions. (HG/BSK always shared one portion of the chicken and one portion of another Belmont specialty, cavatelli in a sauce of ricotta and tomatoes. HG/BSK were amused when two young newcomers to the Belmont ordered two portions of each dish and were astonished when a mountain of food covered their table). All attempts to duplicate Stretch’s Chicken in the HG/BSK family kitchen have failed. The dish has been approximated in a number of North Jersey restaurants where it is called “Chicken Savoy”. Bruce Maguire, HG’s very successful public relations protege, claims he makes a very tasty Stretch’s Chicken at home but HG has not had the opportunity to taste it. However, last night Brilliant Daughter Lesley R. (with assistance from BSK) cooked a Belmont-style dinner for the family and guests Noel (BSK’s sister) and husband, Yossi M. of Ocean Mist Farm. Starter was, once more, linguine with garlic scape pesto. This was followed by a sumptuous platter of well burnished chicken in a dark, vinegary sauce that was a worthy emulation of Stretch’s dish. Grilled (and peeled) red peppers brought color to the dish. Lesley continues to produce kitchen triumphs.
A few nights back, before Lesley R. and family headed back to Rhode Island, HG/BSK felt that after days of seafood it was time to pay attention to that excellent bird: The chicken. But, first there was homage to the sun. Much play on the beach in front of the HG/BSK home. BSK, Massimo and Lesley R., SJ and Handsome Haru were off in kayaks, exploring the calm sea waters. HG was content to stroll and wade in the gradually warming surf. Exquisite Maiko prepared lunch: Japanese curry, an EM special using a Japanese roux package as a base and adding her own spicing plus onions, potatoes, carrots, bonito broth, breakfast sausage and a bit of water. Totally unlike Indian curry. Thick. Unctous. Delicious. Served in small portions (after all, it was lunch). Then on to the wide beach off Maclaren Road for beach glass collecting and shore hiking. Lesley R. preceded dinner with her tarragon-laced Newfoundland cold water shrimp salad. This was followed by a blast from HG/BSK’s New Jersey past: Stretch’s Chicken Savoy. The dish could only be found at the eccentric Belmont Tavern in Belleville, N.J. Composed of chicken, red wine vinegar, white wine, garlic (much), rosemary, anchovies (abundant). Major league flavors. Lesley R. recreated the lush dish in bravura style. It was accompanied by BSK’s signature smashed potatoes (chicken broth and scallions) plus a seasonal PEI treat: Yellow beans. Green salad. Local cheeses (plus some from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick) accompanied by a very special treat: Armenian candied pumpkin (introduced to Massimo and Lesley R. by Lesley’s lovely friend, Dr. Diane, a lady of Armenian heritage.) Great day, Great fun. Great food.
Many decades ago, HG frequented a colorful bar in Manhattan’s theater district — Harold’s Show Spot. It was a hangout of actors (Ben Gazzara, Anthony Franciosa, Shelley Winters), directors, stage managers, etc. On the walls were sardonic photos and posters celebrating playwrights who had only one play that made it to Broadway — Michael Gazzo (“Hatful of Rain”); Donald Bevan and Ed Trzcinski (“Stalag 17”), etc. The display was known as The Wall of the One Shots. Recently, HG thought about “The Wall” in terms of one shot restaurants that are generally indifferent but do one thing outstandingly well. In New York there was a (name forgotten) French restaurant in the East 30s that was uniformly mediocre except for an outstanding roast pigeon (served rare, of course). El Charro, a trapped-in-amber Spanish/Mexican joint that served (and still serves!) homogenized, bland Mexican food alongside a wonderful, steaming, garlicky pot of shrimp (or scallops) in green sauce. An un-named Cuban sandwich place in Washington Heights that presented a sublime platter of butterflied shrimp, deep fried and accompanied by black beans and rice. Many more. Sauteed fish in tofu skin wrappers at a Chinese restaurant on Chatham Square. Blintzes at Ratner’s and kasha varnishkes at Rappaport’s — two (now-shuttered)Lower East Side standouts. Sturgeon and eggs at Barney Greengrass on the Upper West Side. In Santa Fe, HG orders one dish at Santacafe — perfect fried calamari. In Denver, HG always has succulent roast chicken at Potager and avoids the rest of the menu. In Paris, HG has bouillabaisse at Charlot: Roi des Coquillages (everything else on the carte is indifferent or overpriced.) Grilled pig’s foot with sauce bearnaise (certainly) at Pied de Cochon. And, New Jersey’s Belmont Tavern (located in Belleville) needn’t have a menu at all as it offers only one transcendent, must-travel-to-taste, inimitable dish — Stretch’s Chicken Savoy.
Cuisine at the family home on the Prince Edward Island shore has taken a turn toward the robust. Last night Exquisite Maiko presented her super flavorful pork belly in Bonito broth (HG has waxed lyrical about this dish in a previous post). This time, creative EM enriched the dish with big chunks of daikon radish. EM does much to the radish to bring it to a high degree of succulence. The precise procedure is an EM secret. Best not to pry. This was preceded by EM’s marinated mackerel sashimi, a delicious treatment of an often neglected fish. The night before, Brilliant Lesley R. produced her version of Stretch’s Chicken, the signature dish at the eccentric Belmont Tavern in Belleville, N.J. (HG has paid tribute to the Belmont Tavern in a previous post). BLR procured a big free range chicken at the Cardigan Farmers Market and cut the bird into manageable pieces. BLR browned the bird pieces in a big pan and then simmered them in garlic, anchovies, rosemary and lots and lots of wine vinegar. Served with roasted potatoes and fresh yellow beans. A knockout of a dish. BLR had managed to transport New Jersey Italian soul food hundreds of miles north to PEI. A very tasty achievement.
If you want to clog your arteries in delicious fashion, visit The Cardiology Hall of Shame, also known as New Jersey. Start with some “Italian” hot dogs. Three of the specialists in this greasy treat are busy dives: Dickie Dee’s, Jimmy Buff’s and Charlie’s Famous. Basically, an “Italian” hot dog is a deep fried hot dog (size large) stuffed into a circle of spongy “pizza” bread (the better to absorb lots of fragrant effluents) and then topped with oily fried peppers, onions and potatoes. A nice shake of hot pepper flakes. Make sure you have plenty of napkins.
HG will not single out any pizza parlor in the Garden State because the independent Jersey pizza spots are, on the whole, succulent. You can’t go wrong. Also, lots of old fashioned pizza joints serve greasy eggplant and mozzarella sandwiches plus fennel sausages with peppers and onions.
The most famous, dramatic Jersey export, The Sopranos, emphasized food, Italian food. Needless to say, the vast vast majority of New Jersey’s Italian-American population is law abiding — but just as hungry as an angry Tony Soprano looking forward to a slice of “gabagool”. Every town in heavily populated Jersey has outstanding Italian restaurants. HG has written about the incomparable Stretch’s Chicken at the eccentric Belmont Tavern in Belleville. State of the art linguini with white clam sauce is at The Riviera on Rt. 46 in Clifton. HG had some profoundly unhealthy, soaringly yummy Fetuccine Alfredo (prepared on a gas burner tableside with gobs of butter, pours of heavy sweet cream, loads of freshly grated parmigiano reggiano) at a North Arlington restaurant whose name, alas, HG has forgotten. Another nameless restaurant in Cliffside Park (favored by “Sorprano” types) served HG a huge bowl of hare long stewed in red wine and garlic. HG happily ate it with an equally huge bowl of butter drenched ziti (combination was a bit more French than Italian). There is also some, comparatively, healthy Italian food in Jersey. HG and BSK often enjoyed mammoth bowls of steamed mussels and fried zucchini at a Sicilian restaurant, Angelo’s, in gritty Harrison.
But, New Jersey’s major claim to fame is its diners that dot every highway. Yes, some have disappeared (The Short Stop in Bloomfield of “Eggs In The Skillet” fame is now, drat, a Dunkin’ Donuts) but much remains. The Tick Tock on Rt. 3 and its motto “Eat Heavy” flourishes.
However, the best of all diners, The Claremont, which reigned majestically for years on a site at the Montclair/Verona border, is no more. It had an encyclopedic menu (dishes ranged from very good to transcendental) and divine cheesecake and pastries. Great for breakfast, lunch, dinner or after-movie coffee and dessert. At one point, the owners, in a fit of misguided hubris, decided not to leave well enough alone but to “modernize.” That was the death knell. Zealous decorators installed skylights of green and blue colored glass. The light made plates of food look like ghastly abstract impressionist paintings. At lunch, right after the “modernization”, BSK looked at white-haired and blue-eyed HG and their blonde-haired, blue-eyed dining companion. That infernal light, colored by the skylights, had turned their hair blue and green respectively. Their eyes glowed yellow like the Devil himself. The Claremont had survived some tough economic times but it couldn’t survive their decorators.
An eccentric (to say the least) original. Not in any 4 star culinary guidebooks. Beloved by New Jersey gourmands of hearty appetite. HG refers to the Belmont Tavern, a very ordinary looking establishment on Bloomfield Avenue in Belleville, NJ ( adjoining Newark’s North Wards, Belleville was the fictional home of Uncle Junior in “The Sopranos”).
HG doesn’t know if things have changed, but during the 80’s the restaurant and bar were under different (and not too friendly) proprietorships. You got a bill for your food. You got a separate bill for wine and liquor. The one phone booth was always occupied and it appeared to be utilized solely for gambling purposes. The bartender had operatic pretensions (he was actually quite good) and would burst into loud arias when his mood was right.
The signature dish at the Belmont was “Stretch’s Chicken Savoy.” This occupies a place in Joisey cuisine similar to the Tour D’Argent’s pressed duck in Paris. The ne plus ultra. The Iminimitable. The classic. The chicken pieces were roasted to the point where the skin was crisp and the interior juicy. The sauce was near black in color, redolent of vinegar, garlic, olive oil, anchovies and a melange of spices known only to Stretch, then the chef d’cuisine and owner of the restaurant portion of the Belmont. HG liked to start his meal at Belmont with shrimp or scungili salad, both dressed simply with olive oil, lemon juice, garlic (lots of it) and red pepper flakes. This would be followed by a bowl (a delicate word for the huge vessel) of cavatelli in a fresh ricotta and tomato sauce. Only vegetable on the menu was fried hot peppers (HG liked to augment the chicken with these).
Here’s the good news. Stretch is gone but his chicken lives on. The Belmont is still in business and is thriving. Here’s an addition from SJ: Not only thriving but appears to be frozen in amber! On a visit 6 months ago, the spot was jam packed with families that SJ could have sworn he had last seen on a visit to the Belmont in 1983. Here’s a warning from SJ. All portions are family style and meant to be shared. Go with a raging appetite and be prepared to wait at the bar until a table empties. It may not be chic, but the Belmont Tavern is a serious regional experience that should not be missed. Not only does it burst with local color in terms of clientele but the cuisine is singular and great.