Jersey City used to be one of the best places to find old-fashioned Italian restaurants. Then, one-by-one, most closed as the population shifted from Italian to newer immigrant groups. Rita & Joe’s was located in the tangle of freeways leading to the Holland Tunnel. So picturesque, it was featured in the opening credits to the Sopranos. Cafe Dante was situated on top of the Newark Avenue hill before that thoroughfare’s descent into the Meadowlands. It was not frequented by organized crime figures, at least the times I dined there, but instead, it was editors from Gourmet magazine, who didn’t want to be spotted indulging in red-sauced Italian fare because it seemed too low brow.
Both restaurants — as well as Gourmet itself — are now long gone. But one such restaurant lingers: Laico’s. Its location — at 67 Terhune Avenue, between Foster Avenue and Spring Street — is the most obscure of all. Situated mid-block in the residential neighborhood of Greenville, it’s surrounded by warehouses and factories that line Newark Bay and will give your GPS a run for its money. The restaurant occupies the ground floor of a house with a miniature parking lot on one side.
Once inside the vestibule, the narrow dining room stands before you with a stamped tin ceiling, a bar to the right, tables to the left, and colorful teardrop-shaped lanterns hanging from the ceiling, the result of a renovation a decade ago. Directly ahead lies a smaller sunken dining room with a back-lit sign that has Laico’s emblazoned upon it. The restaurant was founded in 1972 by Louis and Felicia Laico, and staffed throughout its 50 years mainly by family members. Son Louis Laico, Jr. is now in charge.
A friend and I went on a recent Sunday afternoon and enjoyed a meal of Italian-American classics. The most interesting part of the menu involves the appetizers, so you might as well order several, but be forewarned that a basket of warm bread, including a wonderful garlic focaccia, will be delivered with plenty of butter as soon as you sit down, along with a freshly dressed salad of romaine, cucumbers, and purple onions. You could easily fill up before you know it, so watch out.
For a first course, we had eggplant rollatini and meatballs ($11 and $9, respectively). The rollatini is a “must order” at any red-sauced Italian-American restaurant. Gobs of fresh ricotta — in this case whipped to extra lightness — are wrapped inside slices of sauteed eggplant, topped with cheese that melts and browns in the broiler, and then topped with tomato sauce. In this case, the sauce was chunky, sweet, and a brilliant shade of red. The meatballs were a little too beefy tasting, but nearly redeemed by more tomato sauce, another dab of ricotta, and shavings of parmesan that lay across the top of the meatballs.
Our second course consisted of a main and a side, both as brilliant as the eggplant — even if it was way too much food to finish. Foremost was a plate of sauteed escarole and navy beans ($13), a famous southern Italian peasant dish that’s become a cherished standard in places like Utica and Pittsburgh, referred to as “beans and greens.” But where did it come from in Italy? Though there are versions found in Florence and Rome, this one, with the ingredients swimming in a thick chicken broth scattered with red-pepper flakes, is the one usually associated with Apulia, the heel of the Italian boot. In Brooklyn, it’s more often served as a soup.
When we asked our server Nicol what the restaurant was famous for, she unhesitatingly replied: the pork chops. Indeed, the chops are thick and juicy, big enough to nearly eclipse the plate, with a bone protruding, presumably to allow you to wield the chop with one hand and daintily nibble off the last bits. The pork chop with vinegar-preserved peppers and mushrooms is one permutation, but we went with the pork chop parmesan ($27), which is a dish we’d never seen before. It came with a plate of red-sauced spaghetti, and was heavenly; we ended up taking half of it home.
Of course, there are desserts, along with after-dinner digestifs and shots of espresso “corrected” with amaretto, but really, after that amount of food, who could take the meal further? I can’t wait to go back.