Tony Soprano Was Here

In food on 06/01/2009 at 8:35 am

Everyone knows Little Italy is the Disneyland version of the real thing, devoid of any bite. The ambience at the corner cafes are nice on a spring or fall evening, but the food is just blah. In New Jersey, ‘Italian’ is all about the attitude. I wouldn’t know if it’s closer or further away from the real thing, but I know a dash of sleaze sells. Bada Bing.

Two nights ago, we ate at Spirito’s in Peterstown, a ‘hood in the southeast corner of Elizabeth, one of the sketchier ones. Though I read a review of a hugely popular place up the block from our apartment that thought my street was ‘of ill repute.’ Spirito’s is run by the eponymous family, has been for 75 years. We tried to eat there while house hunting, but it only opens in the evening. When we happened to drive by with our Bri-ish realtor that day, we saw two big dudes in suits with slicked back hair walk out the windowless green-awning-ed tavern. It was mid-afternoon. I imagined it looked something like this inside:

dis is how we do it

Finally all was revealed. I was kinda afraid to bring a camera, lest they frown upon documentation, but what a place, all salt and charm. Our waitress, Diana, is like your favorite granma or great aunt, telling you what you should order, not writing anything down, limping around on her good hip through the swinging kitchen doors labeled one side “YES”, other side “NO” with an arrow to the YES side.

It was darker than a bat cave inside. The booths against the walls were dark hunter green leather, that tough made men kind, with deep red up-lighting to draw your eyes away from the filthy ceiling tiles. There were Transylvanian ornate chandeliers hanging down from them. Behind the old time cash register by the door was a large Impressionist painting of Papa Spirito in a short-sleeve button down, next to an equally large framed black and white photograph of Mama with Papa from the old country. I glanced across to the couple sitting at the booth right next to the pictures, and they were spitting images.

the wall of fame

The seven of us sat in small collection of tables in the middle of the room, cramped to cozy. The pizza was somewhere between Chicago style (crunchy crust, medium thick) and New York Style (biggish slices) which I will call New Jersey style until proven otherwise. It was heavy on the cheese, oozing oil all the way down my gut. Sausage topping was coin-shaped and hearty. A couple of us ordered entrees, the eggplant and veal parmesans, with a side pasta. I had the ravioli stuffed with ricotta – a little overcooked and under-seasoned, but now I was getting the idea that this was how American Italians liked it, and it was really all about the sauce. You know how we do:

goodfellas thin

Everything was homemade here; the veal was thinly pounded, so I got three filets piled on top of each other. Tender as a just-whacked capo. Eggplant was also impossibly thin and crisply-breaded, standing up quite nicely to the magnificent thick and chunky blood red gravy. But the true star of the evening was the garlic dressing. So garlicky good it was, it made iceberg lettuce taste like something. At least there were fat black olives with pits to make up for it. The dressing was also suitable for dipping the bread, since they don’t have butter (so don’t even ask). I would have enjoyed the dressing more if they had used a fruitier olive oil, and used bitter greens like arugula and watercress. But then, track suits and wife-beaters are an acquired taste as well. Cash only. Bada Boom.

head of garlic
cloves of garlic
olive oil (best quality you can afford, the fruitier/meatier, the better)
balsamic vinegar (the older the sweeter and thicker)
salt and pepper

Cut the top of the head of garlic off. Put in foil, drizzle oil, salt and pepper on top. Wrap loosely and throw in 300°F oven for 30 minutes or until soft and sweet.

Meanwhile, grate a bunch of cloves or garlic and mix with 4:1 ratio olive oil to balsamic vinegar. After the roasted garlic is cooled, squeeze the meat out and mash into mix. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Put garlic dressing into an airtight container or Grolsch bottles.

Tip: In a hurry? Saute the garlic on low-med heat for several minutes until brown instead of roasting.

bring yer cement boots

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