My friend and co-worker, Donna Kusman, was born and raised in Jersey City and moved to London a few years ago. She recently came back to New Jersey to give her new husband a tour of her Garden State haunts and blogged about it. I loved reading about what New Jersey felt like upon her return so much that we’re re-posting her original blog post in its entirety. Thanks, Donna! And, we miss you!
Without fail whenever I am asked what I miss about America, one of the top three answers has been “pizza.” Pizza in England is not like pizza in the NY/NJ region of the US–for starters, it’s rare to find pizza by the slice, even in London. There is no pizza “joint” in London that has the aroma of a neighbourhood pizza place–and isn’t that smell a big part of the experience? (Lest we forget, close to 80% of what we taste is actually attributed to our sense of smell; smell also has a powerful link to memory.) The combination of crispy crust, melting cheese, and a dash of oregano that then becomes folded with an ever-so-subtle “crunch” from the top of the crust before a small bite off the pointed end, careful not to burn one’s mouth from the piping hot cheese . . . THAT is what I was missing, and in a recent whirlwind trip to America I rediscovered my love of the great American “slice.”
And, of course, Tim had to be there for the occasion–more of a revelation than the reliving a memory for him. There were a few choices of venue: John’s, on Bleecker Street, my “local” pizza joint as it was nearby to NYU when I went there. Lombardi’s, the other pizza family in Little Italy, on not-too-distant Spring Street, was also a possibility. And what of Famous Ray’s? I’ve had a few of those in my time, though I always found Ray’s crust to be a bit more doughy than the other famous houses.
In the end, perhaps owing to my impatience, the winner was a tried-and-true neighbourhood place that Robyn had discovered, in Belleville, near her home. Robyn and I spent the morning sorting through the last of my boxes in storage–mostly photo albums, tchotchkes, and various and sundry tax and financial papers. By the time we’d finished unpacking, sorting, trashing, and/or preserving the contents of nine cardboard boxes, almost two hours later, I was ready for something warm and delicious, and the pizza place was just a few blocks away-the obvious choice. We fetched Tim from Robyn’s flat (we were on the ground floor, in vacated office space) and headed out.
I knew we had it right when I opened the door and that lovely aroma of pizza wafted out as I breezed in. The counter held several pies–plain, sausage, veggie–but this was my first experience in a bit, and it had to be the plain the first time. And a Coke (OK, diet for me–more calories to expend on pizza). I sat in a booth while the pizza counter worker tore off a slice for me, a slice for Robyn, and one with meat (sausage, I think) for Tim and popped them in the oven for a minute or two. Served simply, as ever, on thin white paper plates and carted to the booth table on an orange plastic cafeteria tray, behold, the slice. Tim has never seen me smile so widely, he said.
The lift. The fold. The sensory intake of fresh pizza before me, and then finally, the bite . . . I am home and in pizza heaven. It is good. It is better than good, in fact, and after enjoying it all the way down to the crispy crust with just enough bite to it to make it chewy, it’s time for slice number two. Mirror image, only this time with a dash of garlic powder. Delightful. Life is good.
The rest of the trip to America was a lot like that–reliving dormant food experiences for me, enjoying new tastes for Tim. Next on tap was my favourite Italian restaurant in my old neighbourhood of Harrison, where Robyn and I live for a bit. We had a routine–Thursday nights, Nino’s, and then often after dinner a twenty-step walk to the Dunkin’ Donuts on the strip for a takeaway coffee and, sometimes, a large cookie. Nino’s appeal for me is twofold–one, the place is family-owned friendly and the food has always been good–not spectacular, but always fresh, tasty, and simple. Mr Nino would greet you with a smile if he was in the house, and on chilly, snowy days when I’d pop in for an eggplant parmigiana with spaghetti and a side salad he’d offer me a cup of coffee while I waited for my takeaway, on the house of course. The other draw to Nino’s was that eggplant (pardon me, EU readers, aubergine) parmigiana I just spoke of–it was the second best I’d ever had next to my ex-Italian father-in-law’s homemade dish. (My first husband was of Italian descent.)
We’d planned for dinner on Friday night, after a quick trip to see my eldest sister Debbie’s family in Bayonne, where the XBox was fired up and we were soon bowling with Alyssa and Danny, my niece and nephew, and then dancing–well, Tim danced, I watched, with the excuse that I was going to dinner and didn’t want to sweat (rather than I’m uncoordinated and don’t want to).
The dinner guests included Robyn and Jimmy and my eldest sister Debbie and her husband Bobby. I also invited my dear cousin Judy and her husband Carroll, who I am very close with. Surprise guests were my nephew, Robert, who is now 24, and Regina and Pat, friends of the family and with cousin Judy our babysitters when we were growing up in Jersey City. What fun it was–and the food, particularly the eggplant, did not disappoint; Robyn was a bit worried that perhaps the chef or the recipe had changed and I’d been looking forward to the meal for weeks before the trip, but it was as delicious as I’d remembered. Tim started with eggplant rollatini.
And the company, of course, was wonderful–after dinner some of us changed seats so we could catch up a bit. The hugs were long and slightly emotional for me at the end of the glorious evening–I’d see Robyn and Jimmy on Sunday for a wedding we’d been invited to, but not the rest of the crowd until my next journey home.
A trip to New Jersey is not complete without a visit to a diner, the Diner Capital of the World, where 600 diners dot the Garden State. For my money one of the best is Tops, in East Newark, a stone’s through from the hotel we were staying at in Harrison. I’ll admit that I chose the hotel for its proximity to Belleville, home to Robyn and the wedding reception hall, the New Jersey Turnpike, the train to NYC, Nino’s, and the Tops. Diner breakfasts are huge–meaning both important to the business and largely portioned. Tops Diner has a queue every Saturday and Sunday morning, as I recall, and the staff is well trained to take names, clear tables, and keep the hungry crowd moving. Eggs and bacon, with an enormous amount of hash browns on the side and toast piled high continuously stream out of the kitchen.
Bacon. Proper bacon–crispy, thin, salty. You can get Oscar Meyer bacon in London, but it’s just not the same as having it at the diner. Out of practise on my first run, I failed to ask for no hash browns and to have my butter on the side of my wheat toast. No matter; I politely picked at the potatoes, about the same amount of those as the scrambled eggs, and scraped a bit of the excess butter off the bread. Tim, unaccustomed to the American lingo, ordered “brown” bread. The waitperson laughed–all toast is brown, after all! After a brief exchange of what was on offer Tim decided on rye, and when she brought the bread minutes later, she chuckled and said “it’s a little brown” when she placed the plate on the table. I had to smile.
The breakfast was delicious, of course, and would carry us through the morning, as Tim and I began in Hoboken, New Jersey, to see the town where I spent a few years as a single girl. Hoboken is just about a square mile and there is a bar on practically every corner, with lots of shops and restaurants to boot along the main drag called Washington Street. It’s become home to singles and young families who can afford the high price of property or a rental–even when I lived there, back in 1996, the rent was steep but not as steep as Manhattan, just across the river. Part of the trip was giving Tim the tour of the places I lived in New Jersey–Hoboken, Harrison, Kearny, Lyndhurst, and later in the week Mullica Hill, near Philadelphia. I chose to skip my birthplace, Jersey City. Though we were in the city itself, we didn’t go by the two places I’d lived–the first, where I spent my first 5 years, is no longer there, and the second, where I lived until I was almost 25, is in a rough neighbourhood that even in the 70s and 80s was known as a haven for drug dealers, muggers, and other dodgy types. We were close with our immediate neighbours, and early on had a wonderful time growing up, riding our bikes and playing wiffle ball or double-dutch in the street. Everyone was kind and good and we all looked after each other, but year after year the area was overtaken by a less desirable element. The house looked run down years ago when I last drove down Kennedy Boulevard and espied it from there–we actually lived near the corner of Lexington Avenue, a one-way street that meant having to travel up to Bergen Avenue to come down the street, and pass the apartment houses where many an evening the Jersey City police were dealing with some sort of fracas. No matter; Tim would see quite enough on The Donna Tour!
And there is so much more–the trip to Manhattan later that day, where we skipped the pizza (neither John’s nor Lombardi’s does “the slice”) and opted for a deli sandwich, a walk around the World Trade Center site, an expensive drink in a revolving bar near Times Square called The View to see Manhattan from 48 stories high, and a trip to Riverside Drive on the Number 1 train to visit with friends Heike and Mahmoud. The dining table in their beautiful flat was crammed with cheeses and olives and dips and breads and, well, wine of course. The sparkling Lambrusco we started with was a treat, and the night was filled with conversation among the other guests–the couple from Italy (Torino and Genoa); Gowan, from White Plains (NY) whom Tim had an engaging conversation about the Anglican church; Eva, from Austria, who spoke of the wonder of the Viennese balls and answered “NO!” and then laughed out loud when I asked if it was all right to wear the same ball gown to two different parties! And of course catching up with Heike, who I have known for a couple decades, and meeting her Mahmoud for the first time, well, that was special. Heike’s parties are always international–they and their friends are a wonderful melting pot.
After a good night’s rest we yet another engagement, with my dear high-school friend Jill and her husband Mike. (High school means ages 13-17, so that’s how long I know Jill.) Jill found a lovely little cafe in Nutley, near to where we were staying, known for good food. The Chestnut Cafe has lovely hardwood floors and high ceilings, and handsome wooden tables that make the place feel cosy. We went at brunch time, where the menu is filled with eggs and omelets and burgers and paninis–all sampled by the four of us. Tim went for the burger, Jill and I for panini and Mike for eggs, and all of us simply loved the food. And how wonderful for me to watch Tim and Mike and Jill chat–when you have special friends you want them to really like your partner, and it was simply nice to chat around the table about life and work and holidays and leave with a sense of warmth that recognises a special moment in time.
OK, so why did we go to America in the first place? The reason for the trip was a wedding–my friend Gary and his partner Randy, together for twenty years, had decided to throw a big, fat party to celebrate their relationship and recent wedding in New York. Gary wanted it to be the best party we’d ever attended, and I must say, the couple did their best to make that happen–the food was, well, anything you can imagine and then some; the entertainment was brilliant–the Barbra Streisand impersonator was wonderful, particularly when she sang both voices of the duet “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.”
The dancers were fabulous, the DJ had us on the floor, and the desserts for the Viennese hour, much like the cocktail hour, were anything you could think of. I personally enjoyed the chocolate-covered strawberries and bananas, but there were many others to choose from: creme brulee, cherries jubilee, crepes, zeppole, and of course wedding cake (that we were given a slice to take home). I was happy that despite 213 other guests Tim and I had the chance to chat briefly with both Gary and Randy–each very happy and radiant on their day. Gary is a treasure in my family; I know him since I am 15 (do the math) and before moving to London he was not just a family friend but the man who cut my hair! A trip to his salon, or to his fabulous apartment on Greenwich Street in Manhattan, was always a treat for the conversation. I couldn’t help but think how my mother would have loved to be at the wedding; Gary treated my mom so wonderfully and it’s partially that emotional tie that makes me want him to be happy.
The moveable feast continued to southern New Jersey, Philadelphia, and then Newark, NJ . . . and I think I’ll save that for the next post! After all this recollection, I need to eat!
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