Find New Jersey's Best Food Tue, 26 Sep 2017 02:18:22 +0000 en-US hourly 1 32 32 Irish New Jersey Thu, 16 Mar 2017 03:03:23 +0000 We are all Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, but some New Jersey towns are more Irish than others.

EthnicNJ looked at U.S. Census data to find the New Jersey towns with the most Irish residents. After Italian (16.6 %), more New Jerseyans claim Irish ancestry (14.6%) than any other. The chart below lists the top five Jersey towns with the largest numbers and highest percentages of residents reporting Irish ancestry, and the towns with the most residents born in Ireland.

More Irish eyes are smiling in Toms River (22,407 residents) than anywhere else in the Garden State. West Wildwood is the NJ town with the highest percenteage (52%) of people descended from Irish immigrants. The Monmouth County shore towns Spring Lake Heights, Avon-by-the-Sea and Manasquan, sometimes described collectively as Jersey’s “Irish Riviera,” all make the list. Today’s first generation Irish immigrants call Hoboken and Jersey City home.

EthnicNJ’s Demographic Maps illustrate the many ancestry and countries of birth of New Jersey’s population, the most ethnically diverse state population (per capita) in the country.

Looking for Shepherd’s Pie, a traditional lamb stew, or a proper pint to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day? Find New Jersey’s best spots for Irish fare on the Irish cuisine page. EthnicNJ favorites include The Quiet Man in Dover, Nugent’s Tavern in Elizabeth, and St. Stephen’s Green Publick House, in, where else? – Spring Lake Heights.

Beannachtam na Feile Padraig!

History, Food and Poetry in Paterson, NJ Wed, 28 Dec 2016 16:11:41 +0000 Paterson, the bus driver poet played by Adam Driver in Jim Jarmusch’s new movie of the same name, finds inspiration in the routines of his blue-collar community, composing verse while sitting on a bench facing the Great Falls. Something about Paterson, New Jersey, and its waterfall, has attracted dreamers and storytellers for centuries.

Paterson (2016) - Photo by Mary Cybulsky

“Paterson” (2016) – Photo by Mary Cybulsky

Great Falls National Historical Park is tapping into the creativity sparked by its location, using stories about food to connect Paterson’s history to the people who live there.

Paterson, NJ

Great Falls - Paterson, NJPaterson’s history is a very American story of abundant natural resources, immigrant labor and sacrifice, economic booms and busts, and diverse communities living and struggling together.

The wide, rocky bend where the Passaic River crashes seventy-seven feet over basalt cliffs, spoke to Alexander Hamilton, who chose the location as the site for America’s first planned industrial city in 1792. Our country’s first Treasury Secretary wanted to ease the young nation’s reliance on manufactured goods imported from England. An immigrant himself, Hamilton envisioned a hub of industry and innovation harnessing the power of the great Falls, driven by immigrants’ “diversity of talents.”

Hamilton Statue @ Great Falls - Paterson, NJHamilton’s original plan fizzled after a single textile mill, a financial panic, and some embezzlement by the manufacturing society’s directors, but Paterson survived. Thanks to an ingenious “raceway” system of canals along the Passaic, and a steady stream of immigrant labor, Paterson became an early industrial powerhouse of the United States. For more than a century from the early 1800s, Paterson was a major manufacturing center, its factories and workers churning out textiles, firearms, locomotives and the world class silk that gave the town its nickname. Generations of immigrants – from England, Ireland, Germany, Italy, Eastern Europe and the Middle East – toiled in the Silk City’s factories and fuelled Paterson’s impressive population growth. In 1900, Paterson was the fastest growing city on the East Coast. By 1910, Paterson had 300 factories employing more than 18,000 workers.

Paterson’s economic success had a dark side, including squalid living conditions for the City’s poor and the widespread exploitation of working adults, and many children, in its factories. Paterson’s workers often protested abusive working conditions, such as during the six-month-long Their struggles played a key role launching the American trade union movement, which ultimately led to laws banning child labor and securing the eight-hour strike of 1913. IWW Paterson Strike Poster

Paterson’s fortunes rose again in the first half of the Twentieth Century, with a growing middle class fuelled by descendants of the City’s first-generation immigrants. As Paterson’s factories closed and the post-World War II economic boom ended, however, the City’s economic base shifted away from manufacturing and entered a decades-long decline. The City has endured high rates of unemployment and poverty since the 1970s. Despite the struggling economy, the size of Paterson’s population has remained stable, unlike many other formerly industrial cities, largely due to foreign immigration replacing migration from Paterson to the surrounding suburbs.

Two and a quarter centuries after its founding, Paterson is the most densely populated city in the most densely populated state, and the third largest city in New Jersey with some 148,000 residents.

Source: "Great Falls, Great Food, Great Stories" Project

Source: “Great Falls, Great Food, Great Stories”

True to its history, Paterson remains a city of immigrants. A third of Paterson’s current residents were born outside the United States – with large numbers from the Dominican Republic, Peru, Mexico, Jamaica, Bangladesh and the Middle East. The city is home to a Peruvian Consulate and one of the largest Arab-American communities in the U.S. Patersonians today sustain the local economy, not as factory workers, but as service providers and small business owners.


The rise and fall of the “American Dream” in Paterson is the stuff of poetry. William Carlos Williams, in his epic poem, “Paterson” (1946-58), reimagines the Great Falls as the “image of the City as a man . . . peopling the place with his thoughts”:

“The past above, the future below

and the present pouring down: the roar,

the roar of the present, a speech –

is, of necessity, my sole concern.”

 –  William Carlos Williams, “Paterson”

Paterson also appears in the poetry of Allen Ginsburg, whose father taught English at Paterson’s Central High School for 40 years. In the movie Paterson, look for the William Carlos Williams volume on the bus driver’s basement table.

Great Falls National Park

Falls @ Great Falls - Paterson, NJPaterson’s Great Falls became a U.S. National Historic Park in 2011. Since then, the National Parks Service has worked to attract new visitors. At least 180,000 people visited the Park last year, according to Ilyse Goldman, the Park Ranger supervising resource education at the Great Falls. Visitors include local residents, New Jersey school groups, National Park fans checking off the Great Falls (the second highest waterfall east of the Mississippi river, after Niagara Falls), and casual visitors drawn to visit the Falls from outside of Paterson. Because there is no fixed entrance to this urban Historic Park, the total is an estimate, but the number of visitors has “grown significantly” in the past few years. One source of growth is undoubtedly the renewed interest in all things Hamilton since that show took Broadway by storm.

Visitors @ Great Falls - Paterson, NJ

“The Great Falls are a mind-blowing natural wonder in the middle of a city.”

–  Robin Gold, Hamilton Partnership

Continuing to attract new visitors is no easy task. The Park faces a number of challenges as one of the nation’s newest and smallest urban National Parks. According to Robin Gold, Program Director of the Hamilton Partnership for Paterson, the Great Falls is unique among National Historic Parks with a “mind-blowing natural wonder in the middle of a city,” yet many local residents, even in Paterson, “still don’t know that the Falls are now a National Park.”

Clock @ Great Falls - Paterson, NJWhile there are plans in the works to develop the Park’s infrastructure in the coming years, right now there’s not much more to the National Park than the naturally impressive Falls themselves. A Welcome Center provides Park information, serves as the starting point for ranger-led guided tours, and houses a small gift shop. There are no other official Park buildings to visit. The City of Paterson owns the parkland surrounding the Falls in the Historic District, as well as the Paterson Museum in one of the original factory buildings, which houses local archaeology, history, and mineralogy collections. You can easily park in the free Park lot, take in the impressive view of the Falls, and walk the short circuit across the footbridge over the river gorge in less than an hour.

The Great Falls National Park and the commercial districts of Paterson are largely isolated from one another. Perched above downtown Paterson, nothing in the landscape encourages visitors to walk down the hill. Visitors from outside of Paterson typically visit the Falls, snap a picture of the bronze Alexander Hamilton statue, and leave. Paterson residents might climb the hill to eat lunch at the picnic table next to the Hamilton statue, or pass by the Falls on their way between downtown and the Totowa section neighborhood.

How do you get more local residents to visit, while encouraging Park visitors to explore New Jersey’s most densely populated city?

How do you get more local residents to visit, while encouraging Park visitors to explore New Jersey’s most densely populated city? The answer: food stories.

Hamilton @ Great Falls - Paterson, NJThe Park Service has emphasized developing the Park’s interpretative resources, investing in educational programs and social media outreach. The Park Service’s Goldman, for example, is partnering with a local middle school to design an innovative three-year curriculum around immigrant experiences throughout Paterson’s history. Students visit the Park and other area educational sites to learn about immigrant contributions to American history.

Through her work on the school curriculum, Goldman has learned that stories about food are a powerful way to teach immigration history. “Everyone has a story about their grandmother’s favorite dish,” Goldman points out.

“Everyone has a story about their grandmother’s favorite dish.”

–  Ilyse Goldman, National Park Service


Outside @ Abu Rass - Paterson, NJFood emerged as a powerful storytelling tool in last year’s National Parks Now competition, sponsored by the New York City-based non-profit Van Alen Institute. The design competition sought proposals to “attract new audiences, develop unconventional partnerships, make historic narratives relevant to new generations, and encourage immersion into natural landscapes” for four lesser known northeastern National Parks: Sagamore Hill (Oyster Bay, NY), Steamtown National Historic Site (Scranton, PA), Weir Farm (Wilton, CT), and Paterson’s Great Falls.

Outside @ La Tia Delia - Paterson, NJTeam Paterson, a multidisciplinary group of designers, historians and other experts, tackled the problem of attracting visitors to the Great Falls by thinking about ways to make connections between the Park and the largely immigrant community surrounding it. Immigration and industry were obvious themes, but how could the Park make connections between the past and present? How could they tell the story of the Great Falls in a way that is meaningful to Paterson’s current population?


Kanafeh @ Nablus Pastry

When the group met in Paterson to consult with staff from the Park and the Hamilton Partnership, they often brainstormed over lunch. Team Paterson tried a different local restaurant each visit, sampling Peruvian ceviche, Argentinian empanadas, Turkish lahmajun, and Lebanese kanafeh along the way.

Food quickly emerged as a compelling and relevant way to connect the past and present, the community and Park visitors. “We realized that food is a common pathway,” says urban historian Mariana Mogilevich.

"Sarai" @ Great Falls - Paterson, NJ

Food is at the center of Paterson’s cultural landscape.

Food is at the center of Paterson’s cultural landscape.

The narrative of the Great Falls in American history begins with a meal. In the midst of the Revolutionary War, George Washington, his aide Alexander Hamilton, and the French general Lafayette picnicked on the riverbank across from the Great Falls. On July 10, 1778, they ate a “’modest repast’ of cold ham, tongue and biscuits,” according to Hamilton’s biographer. The memory of that meal and its location led Hamilton to found Paterson at the Great Falls.

Today in Paterson, thanks to its diverse foreign-born population, you’ll find one of the widest arrays of global cuisine in New Jersey. Paterson neighborhoods include enclaves known for their ethnic food: “Little Lima” on Market Street for Peruvian; “Little Italy” around Cianci Street for Italian; and “Little Istanbul,” “Little Ramallah” or “Little Damascus,” depending on who’s talking, along Main Street in South Paterson for Middle Eastern fare. "Erik" @ Great Falls - Paterson, NJAmong the standout family-owned local restaurants are Patsy’s Tavern (Italian), La Tia Delia (Peruvian), Stone’s Original Jerk Chicken (Jamaican), Taskin Bakery (Turkish), Al Safa (Syrian) and Nablus Pastry (Palenstinian). And right next to the Great Falls is Libby’s Lunch, home of the iconic “Texas Weiner” style New Jersey hot dog.

By reinterpreting Paterson’s history through a food lens, Team Paterson realized they could make connections between the National Park and the City, and between the past and the present. Food became the storytelling thread connecting the history of the Great Falls to contemporary life in Paterson. “Food and eating is connected to living, breathing history,” notes Mogilevich.

“Food and eating is connected to living, breathing history.”

– Mariana Mogilevich, Team Paterson

Great Falls, Great Food, Great Stories

Source: "Great Falls, Great Food, Great Stories" Project

Source: “Great Falls, Great Food, Great Stories” Project

Team Paterson’s project proposal – “Great Falls, Great Food, Great Stories” – envisioned partnerships with local restaurants; food-related programming to bring the Park into the City, and the community into the Park; and new interpretive materials to tell the stories of Patersonians, past and present. Their project won the National Parks Now competition.

Street @ Great Falls - Paterson, NJFor the pilot phase of the project last year, Team Paterson developed eye-catching way-finding posters – like “← Great Falls  / Great Ceviche → ” – for display in the windows of three Peruvian restaurants adjacent to the Park on Market Street. The pilot culminated with project and Park staff visiting the local restaurants.

Paterson Storyboards 3 Storyboard - Paterson, NJ

Source: “Great Falls, Great Food, Great Stories”

With additional funding from the NJ Council for the Humanities, the second phase of the project highlighted the proximity of the Park to popular local restaurants in two Paterson neighborhoods, on Market Street in downtown Paterson, and a 10-minute drive from the Park along Main Street in South Paterson. Participating restaurants were listed in a new map for Park visitors. The fifteen restaurants are a cross-section of Paterson’s diverse food options, including Costa Marina, Dulcemente Peruano, and Panchito’s (Peruvian) on Market Street, and Al Basha (Lebanese), Nouri’s (Syrian), Toros (Turkish) and Abu Rass (Palestinian) on Main Street. To introduce restaurant patrons to the Park, each restaurant was provided placemats branded with the project slogan “Great Falls, Great Food, Great Stories”.

Coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in August of this year, the “Savor Paterson” food festival – featuring local restaurants serving a diverse array of Paterson’s global cuisine – brought hundreds of people, largely families, to the Great Falls on a summer evening.

At the center of the project is an effort to tell Paterson’s story in creative ways. "Right Place" Storyboard Storyboard - Paterson, NJA new brochure available at the Park’s Visitor’s Center makes the connections between history, food, community and immigration:

“People on Paterson have always worked hard to put food on the table – and they have always enjoyed the landscape of the Great Falls. They have strived to preserve their heritage while adopting new cultures and customs. Their story is the same today. The businesses, foods, and languages may have changed, but the dream is the same.”

– “Great Falls, Great Food, Great Stories” brochure

This fall, nine brightly colored “storyfronts” were strategically displayed around the City. Each large poster, illustrated with archival photos and historical drawings, recounts one aspect the City’s history with quotes from actual Paterson residents of different eras, from 1602 through 2016. The quotes demonstrate how different generations of Patersonians have had similar experiences, sprinkled with food-related details.

Source: "Great Falls, Great Food, Great Stories" Project

Source: “Great Falls, Great Food, Great Stories”

The “Different Cultures Meet in Paterson” storyboard, for example, an EthnicNJ favorite, features remarkably consistent testimony of diverse communities living together, and learning from one another in Paterson, for centuries:

“We brought fruits and vegetables from the Netherlands, but the land was different here. The Lenape introduced us to corn and squash and showed us how to grow them. . . .”    – Gerrit, 1690


“My family is Irish but I had Italian friends, Jewish friends. One time I went to visit my Italian friends and they poured me a big glass of wine. I was only sixteen – I wasn’t used to it! They said: We do this at every meal!”    – Mary, 1886


“An Irish patrolman came in to our pastry shop and he had never has these kinds of sweets before. He looked at the Kanafeh and said ‘Give me a piece of that carrot cake!’ It’s just a question of trying things. . . .”    – Abdullah, 1998


“Our next door neighbor was from El Salvador, and we would eat her pupusas all the time. Before she moved away, she came over and taught me and my mother how we could make them ourselves.”    – Yesi, 2000


"Morris" Storyboard - Paterson, NJOther storyboards quote Patersonians talking about immigration, family, work, food production and visiting the Falls. All text is translated in three languages: English, Spanish and Arabic.

The storyfronts around Paterson were temporary, but the brochure is still available at the Park Welcome Center. Ideally, the project can help to establish long-term partnerships between the Park, local restaurants and Paterson’s residents. The Hamilton Partnership’s Robin Gold notes that the project has already created new relationships between local restaurants and the Park. Participating restaurants closest to the Park, for example, report gaining some new customers as a result. 

“Who lives, Who dies, Who tells your story?”

– Lin-Manuel Miranda

Great Falls, Great FoodGreat Falls, Great Food, Great Stories could become of model for the National Park Service to engage new audiences in creative ways. The project blurs the boundaries of the Park and remixes history in a way that engages people. What the musical Hamilton accomplishes using the language of hip-hop to connect new audiences to American history, the Great Falls National Park is doing on a smaller scale: using food as a common language to connect immigrant New Jersey’s present to the Falls, the Park and Paterson’s history.

I imagine Alexander Hamilton, William Carlos Williams, and Adam Driver’s Paterson would approve.

by Anthony Ewing

Immigrant New Jersey Wed, 27 Jul 2016 17:26:49 +0000 Whether your ancestors settled here long ago (like some of mine), your great-grandparents stepped off a boat onto Ellis Island (like the rest of mine), or you or your parents landed at Newark Airport, every Jersey family tree was planted somewhere else. Most of us once were foreigners. New Jerseyans trace their roots to every country you can name, and we’re fiercely proud of that. At a time when presumptive political leaders peddle fear and blame immigrants for every societal problem, New Jersey draws strength from our immigrant past and present.

Verducci Christmas Eve dinner, circa 1951, South Orange, NJ

The Verducci Family (1951) – South Orange, NJ

St. Patrick's Day (2011) - Morristown, NJ

St. Patrick’s Day (2011) – Morristown, NJ

New Jersey’s ethnic diversity is broad and deep – a dynamic mix of first-generation immigrants and the descendants of immigrants. New Jersey ranks 11th among states by population, but 3rd (after California and New York) by percentage of foreign-born residents.

One in five of New Jersey’s almost 9 million people is an immigrant.

All of the state’s population growth since 2010, in fact, is attributable to foreign-born immigration. New Jersey also happens to have the third highest per capita income in the United States. Notably, one-third of all New Jersey business owners are foreign-born, with almost half of “Main Street” businesses  – like restaurants – owned by immigrants. Often excluded from other opportunities, first-generation immigrants succeed through hard work. They get the job done.

Louie and Carlos Cancio

New Barbecue Pit – Bergenfield, NJ

Enjoying Fresh Sugar Cane Juice @ Jassi Sweets

Jassi Sweets – Iselin, NJ

Todd @ Rodgers Real BBQ - Avenel, NJ

Rodgers Real BBQ – Avenel, NJ

Earlier immigrants have passed their ethnic identities to subsequent Jersey-born generations. Italian (16%) is the ancestry most frequently claimed by New Jerseyans, followed by Irish (14%), African (14%),  German (11%), Polish (5%), and Puerto Rican (5%).

Ancestry List

Jersey Ancestors from 114 Countries

New immigrants continue to arrive. New Jersey is home to the most Cuban-Americans outside of Florida, the third largest Peruvian, Indian and Korean populations in the country, and the fourth largest Chinese population in the United States. New Jersey is the only state where residents born in India make up the largest share (11%) of the foreign-born population, followed by  people from the Dominican Republic (7%), Mexico (6%), Africa (4%), China (4%), Philippines (4%), Ecuador (4%), and Colombia (4%). New Jersey towns and counties have some of the nation’s largest concentrations of foreign-born residents, like the first-generation immigrant communities in Kearny (Peruvian), Jersey City (Indian, Filipino), Newark (Brazilian, Portuguese), Paterson (Middle Eastern), Atlantic County (Vietnamese), Bergen County (Cuban, Korean), Essex County (Caribbean) and Middlesex County (South Asian, Chinese). We are, after all, the most densely populated state in the country,

As a result, New Jersey’s population is remarkably diverse, by culture, by language, by race and by religion. In the Census, New Jerseyans report 106 different ancestries, often multiple, and were born in 114 different countries. Beyond English, many New Jerseyans speak Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin, Italian, Portuguese, Tagalog, Gujarati, Polish, Hindi and Arabic. Rutgers, the State University, is one of the country’s most international, with students from 63 countries. New Jersey has the second-highest share of Jewish residents (after New York), and of Muslim residents (after Michigan).

Nablus Pastry - Paterson, NJ

Nablus Pastry – Paterson, NJ

Soft Tofu Restaurant – Fort Lee, NJ

Thomas Vu

Hủ Tiếu Miền Tây – Pleasantville, NJ

Chef Meklit

Lalibela – South Orange, NJ

Stella's Empanadas - Kearny

Stella’s Empanadas – Kearny, NJ

Ancestry Map Screen Shot

EthnicNJ’s Ancestry Map

In New Jersey, you see the demographic changes reshaping the United States.

The share of Latinos (18%), African-Americans (14%), and Asians (8%) in New Jersey is growing. New Jersey has the seventh largest Hispanic population in the United States. The US Census Bureau estimates that by 2043, the United States will become a “minority-majority” nation, as non-Hispanic “whites” will account for less than half the population. Five of New Jersey’s twenty-one counties – Essex, Union, Passaic, Middlesex and Cumberland – are already minority-majority. While our ethnic diversity does not yet mean a consistent level of integration across the state, it does mean people of many backgrounds living, learning, working (and eating) together.


EthnicNJ maps Jersey diversity. EthnicNJ’s interactive NJ Demographic Maps illustrate the ethnic roots of New Jersey’s population, displaying ancestry and place of birth information for each of New Jersey’s 21 counties and for 570 individual towns.

Vietnamese Born Population of Cherry Hill, NJ

Vietnamese-Born Population of Cherry Hill, NJ

As part of an initiative by NJ Spotlight and Montclair State University’s Center for Cooperative Media to tell the story of New Jersey’s immigrant communities, EthnicNJ has updated its Ancestry and Place of Birth Maps with the most recent US Census population estimates.


New map features include:

  • The ability to toggle between 5-year population estimates for 2012 and 2014
  • Population percentages for every geography
  • Population estimates for the State as a whole

Use the EthnicNJ Ancestry Map to see the 106 different ancestries reported by New Jerseyans, from Afghan to Yugoslavian, and where they live. Use the EthnicNJ Place of Birth Map to see the 114 countries (and 46 regions) of birth of New Jersey’s foreign-born population.

NJ's Peruvian Population & Restaurants

NJ’s Peruvian Population & Restaurants

Viewed together, EthnicNJ’s food and demographic maps paint a powerful picture of New Jersey communities. EthnicNJ has mapped over 1100 restaurants serving some 60 different cuisines.

Ethnic diversity is as Jersey as an Italian hot dog, a taco al pastór, a masala dosa, kimchi, roti, lechón, pão de queijo, báhn mì, an arepa, a slider or a slice.

Food follows people. Display the EthnicNJ restaurant markers on the ancestry or place of birth map, for example, and you’ll see Peruvian restaurants following Peruvian-Americans from first-generation immigrant communities like Kearny, into the Jersey suburbs. You can see similar migrations for Portuguese, Indian and Vietnamese food. Urban neighborhoods once home to first-generation Italians, like Trenton‘s Chambersburg or Newark‘s Ironbound, are now good places to find restaurants serving first-generation Guatemalans and Salvadorans, or Portuguese and Brazilians, respectively.

New Jersey has always been EthnicNJ. That’s who we are. That’s why we live here.

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Underdogs and Hot Dogs Sun, 03 Jul 2016 03:29:51 +0000 With a national population of just over 330,000 people, the chances of locating Icelandic cuisine in New Jersey are better than than the likelihood of bumping into an actual Icelander in the Garden State.

Fair use,

Fewer than 800 New Jersey residents claim Icelandic ancestors, with the greatest concentration (126) living in the Essex County town of Glen Ridge. An estimated ten percent of the Icelandic nation is currently in France anyhow, on an extended, unexpected holiday.

Last week, Iceland’s men’s national soccer team defeated Austria to advance to the knockout rounds of the 2016 UEFA European Championship. This is a big deal. Iceland is in the Euros for the first time ever (they have never qualified for a World Cup final). One of the team’s co-coaches is a dentist. Icelanders are understandably ecstatic. I thought Andres Cantor was an over-the-top futbol announcer. Until I heard Gudmundur Benediktsson:

Benediktsson was equally subdued when Iceland beat England 2-1 last Monday to reach the quarter finals, screaming in Icelandic, “You can leave Europe! You can go wherever the hell you want!”

The Icelanders’ viral Viking chant evokes the haka dance of New Zealand’s Māori All Blacks.

Icelandic Menu
Tomorrow, these mighty Icelanders face host country France in the Stade de France for a spot in the semifinals against reigning World Cup Champions Germany. All the pressure will be on France, one of the tournament favorites. Many football fans will rooting for Iceland.

Where can any New Jerseyan with a soft spot for colossal underdogs (I’m looking at you, Mets fans) find Icelandic cuisine to celebrate this Nordic Rudy story? It’s not easy. My research turns up no restaurant in New Jersey serving smoked puffin, whale steak or skyr.

There is, however, a fish market in Bergen County specializing in Icelandic fish, like Arctic char,  blue ling, tusk and wolffish, flown into Newark airport daily from frigid Icelandic waters. The Fish Dock, opened last year by Icelanders Olafur and Maria Baldursson is in Closter, NJ (not Glen Ridge). Alas, The Fish Dock is closed on Sundays.

Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur - ReykjavicIceland’s most popular restaurant is a hot dog kiosk  called Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, or “the best hot dogs in town,” on the Reykjavik waterfront. I know this because I ate an Icelandic hot dog (pylsur) there after running the Reykjavik Half-Marathon in 2012. I recommend the hot dog, made from beef, pork and lamb, with a sweet brown mustard, and Iceland, a fascinating volcanic landscape of glaciers and sheep.

New Jerseyans share Icelanders love of hot dogs. Maybe Rutt’s Hut in Clifton, NJ is the place for Icelanders, and newfound fans of the Icelandic national team, to watch Sunday’s game?

Icelandic Hot Dog

Icelandic Hot Dog (pylsur)

“Most of us were once foreigners” Fri, 25 Sep 2015 20:55:44 +0000 Few places embrace diversity like New Jersey. One in five New Jersey residents was born outside the U.S. All of our ancestors came from somewhere else. Our most densely populated state in the Union continues to welcome immigrants from every corner of the globe, and our communities are stronger because of this. Pope Francis’ words yesterday, spoken clearly in his fourth-best language, ring true to these Italian-American Jersey ears.

Sept. 24, 2015 (Source: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

“We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners. I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants.

. . .


On this continent,  . . . thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation.

Sophie Cruz (Source: Slate)

Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.”


— Pope Francis, Washington, DC, September 24, 2015

Trini Taste Test Tue, 08 Sep 2015 12:40:14 +0000 West Indian roti pack the intense flavors of New Jersey’s Trinidadian cuisine. EthnicNJ tried six versions from popular local Trini spots to find a favorite.

Curry Chicken Roti @ Cafe Trinbago - Orange, NJ

Curry Chicken on the bone, almost 3 pounds!

I first tasted roti at Caribbean Cuisine in South Orange. The restaurant has since closed (the building on First Street now houses Town Hall Deli of Jersey Sloppy Joe fame), but for a time it was my go to place for these hefty bundles of island spices, meat and carbs.

Curry Goat Roti from Limin’s

Named for the South Asian flatbread brought to the Caribbean by Indian laborers, West Indian roti are hearty portable meals that capture the multicultural influences in Trinidadian cuisine. Stewed vegetables, meat or fish, mixed with potatoes and chickpeas (channa), all spiced with intense Caribbean curries, are wrapped in the thin, flaky whole wheat bread until the entire roti package is bursting at the seams. You can order the flatbread on the side, but I prefer the wraps. Another Trini dish, “Buss up Shot,” because it resembles a “torn up shirt,” features strips of ripped up roti.

Outside @ Cafe Trinbago - Orange, NJ

Cafe Trinbago – Orange, NJ

Essex county is home to the most New Jersey residents hailing from the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobabo, with significant communities living in Newark, East Orange and Orange. Earlier this summer, I enlisted EthnicNJ’s college staffer (and daughter) Samantha to retrieve roti from a few of Essex county’s most popular Trini spots, taking full advantage of her visiting boyfriend, who hails from Port-of-Spain (via Maryland), to help judge their relative merits. A follow-up trip added two more restaurants to the mix.


Pholourie with tamarind sauce

Our Essex County loops connected five Trini spots that get strong reviews online: Limin’s Caribbean Cafe in East OrangeCastawayTrinbago Roti and Cafe Trinbago in Orange; and Leela’s Trinidad Cuisine in West Orange.

Roti Taste Test

Two roti, sliced for tasting.

Roti would be the baseline test. A single meat-filled roti can weigh at least a pound – the perfect take out food to taste test at home. The EthnicNJ teams left with instructions to bring home roti from each restaurant.

Sign @ Trinibago Roti - Orange, NJ

Trinibago Roti – Orange, NJ

Limin’s, on the corner of Winans and Main Streets in East Orange, features a bamboo bar and tropical ambience, with loud Soca music playing on a Sunday afternoon. Our tasters purchased one curry chicken and one curry goat roti ($9 each). They also ordered a couple of typical Trindadian sides, pholourie, fried dough balls served with a tamarind dipping sauce, and aloo pie, a spicy mashed potato samosa. Limin’s menu ranges from popular snacks, like curried chickpea filled “doubles” and beef pies, to entrees like curry duck, stew oxtails and escoviche (battered fish).  

Roti Inside @ Trinibago Roti - Orange, NJ

Curried chicken from Trinbago Roti

At the second stop, Leela’s, they ordered the same two rotis to go ($9 each). Leela’s was a simple space on Main Street in West Orange with bare walls, a counter and about 25 seats. Unfortunately, since our first visit, Leela’s has disappeared, replaced by Benji’s TaqueriaCastaway Restaurant and Bar on Watchung Avenue in Orange, more of a nighttime spot, was closed on Sunday afternoon, so the first excursion produced a total of four rotis to try.

Pholourie @ Cafe Trinbago - Orange, NJ

Pholourie to go @ Cafe Trinbago

Back home for the taste test, we spread the bounty out across the kitchen table. The entire EthnicNJ team, and a neighbor who visited at just the right time, sampled each roti. All had that powerful curry base around well-stewed meat, both the chicken and the goat. Limin’s rotis are quite large, bursting with chunks of chicken and goat on the bone. Leela’s were not so overstuffed, with boneless chicken, making them easier to eat. The consensus favorites were the rotis from Leela’s. Leela’s potato and chickpea filling was slightly spicier than Limin’s. The texture of the roti wrap was also softer and moister. Simplicity and strong flavors won out. Our Trini judge gave high marks to the sides from Limin’s, however, including the notably spicy aloo pie, which reminded him of home cooking.

Another benefit of the first excursion: our team brought back a few bottles of Angostura Lemon, Lime & Bitters, or “LLB,” a local Trini soft drink. LLB is a fine drink to wash down the spicy food. Turns out it is an even better ready-made mixer for rum. We also sampled a couple snack packets, imported from Trinidad: sweet and spicy tamarind balls, and something called “pepper mango.” The tamarind balls are OK, too sweet for me. The pepper mango, a strangely iridescent shade of bright red, are, let’s say, an acquired taste, more chemical pickle than pepper or mango.

After realizing that Leela’s had closed, EthnicNJ visited two more Trini restaurants. On our second roti trip, we tried Trinbago Roti on Main Street in Orange, NJ, and Cafe Trinbago, across from the White Castle on Orange’s Central Avenue. Trinbago Roti is a tiny storefront with a takeout counter and a just a few tables in Orange’s bustling commercial downtown. Roti are the focus, but the menu includes a range of Trini snacks, pastries, meat and fish dishes. Cafe Trinbago is a little bigger, with a menu of snacks, roti, and dishes like Macaroni Pie, Crab & Dumplins and Bake & Pumpkin. At both places, the rotis are assembled fresh, with layers of roti flatbread, chickpea flour, spiced potatoes, channa and your choice of meat or vegetable filling. At Trinbago, we ordered boneless curried chicken ($8.50). At Cafe Trinbago, they had no boneless, so we went with curried chicken on the bone ($8).

Pepper Mango

Think twice before tasting this.

Cafe Trinbago’s was the largest of all the roti we tried, weighing in at a whopping 2.8 pounds. Both flatbreads were very good, supple and moist. Aside from being more manageable, we again preferred the taste of the boneless chicken roti. There was less chickpea flour between roti layers, which can taste a little scratchy, and the spice mixtures in Trinbago’s roti were more assertive. Considering all six we tasted, Trinbago’s and Leela’s boneless curry chicken roti were the clear favorites. We will happily visit Trinbago, Limin’s and Cafe Trinbago again to try more of the menu. And if Leela’s reopens somewhere, please let us know.

There are many Trini and Caribbean places to explore in Jersey. In Essex County alone, there are five Trini restaurants on the EthnicNJ map. Grab a roti to go, or try a full plate of food, to find your favorite.


Our new favorite mixer.

3 Spots for Trini Food in New Jersey


Cafe Trinbago – Orange
454 Central Avenue

Limin’s  – East Orange
5 Winans Street

Trinbago Roti – Orange
169 Main Street

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Bourdain’s New Jersey – The Restaurants Mon, 08 Jun 2015 02:52:34 +0000 Bourdain Parts Unknown“To know Jersey is to love her.” In last Sunday’s Parts Unknown episode on CNN, Anthony Bourdain delivers an ode to New Jersey that will make many Jerseyans weep with pride. If you want to retrace Bourdain’s steps and meals, here are the spots he visited across the Garden State.

I’ve been a Bourdain fan since Kitchen Confidential, as much for his incisive storytelling as his irreverent attitudes on food, life and chefdom. I admit I’ve been known to go out of my way to track down places Bourdain has praised, like an obscure cebichería in Peru and a rustic lechonera in the mountains of Puerto Rico.

Bourdain’s Jersey roots, growing up in Leonia, might explain the outsider perspective that marks his work. Bourdain accurately describes the common Jersey trait of envy for everything happening across the river, while valuing everything uniquely Jersey and all that NJ has to offer.

Source: CNN, “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown: New Jersey”

Bourdain has featured New Jersey before. During the first season of the Travel Channel’s No Reservations in 2005, Bourdain ate “rippers” at Hiram’s in Fort Lee, fried clams at Klein’s Fish Market in Belmar, homemade cheese and pizza at the Bobolink Dairy in Milford, a chocolate egg cream and sushi at Baumgart’s Cafe in Engelwood, a taro bubble tea at Mitsuwa Market in Edgewater, Korean soondubu jjigae at Soft Tofu Restaurant in Fort Lee, and canollis from Gencarelli’s Bakery in Bloomfield – a coda to the Sopranos-themed episode.

William Carlos Williams

Source: CNN, “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown: New Jersey”

His “New Jersey” episode a decade ago was a coming out of sorts for Bourdain. Yes, he admits, I’m from Jersey. Bourdain’s most recent profile of his home state, now for CNN, is an unvarnished, yet sympathetic, portrait of struggling locales (Atlantic City, Camden), iconic favorites (Asbury Park), Bourdain family nostalgia (Fort Lee, Long Beach Island with his younger brother), and Jersey folk ruralia (Pine Barrens). He clearly has favorites. Bourdain once again opens the episode at Hiram’s, the Fort Lee hot dog shack of his youth, and returns to Asbury Park at the end for a meal with rocker Southside Johnny. Ten years ago he visited the Asbury Park boardwalk booth of Springsteen’s Madame Marie. Turning his attention to Atlantic City and Camden in the heart of the piece, however, Bourdain is really owning Jersey this time, warts and all. He weaves in some sharp political/cultural criticism, and delivers plenty of quotable one-liners along the way. Throughout, he highlights places and people committed to seeing Jersey through any tough times.

Source: CNN, “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown: New Jersey”

Bourdain uses distinct Jersey voices to structure his story.  William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Springsteen, even Jon Bon Jovi, have all contributed to the poetry of Jersey. So does Bourdain in my book.

#  #  #

Here are the places Anthony Bourdain visited (and what he is seen eating) in the episode:

Fort Lee, NJ

Hiram’s – The iconic Bergen County hot dog stand at 1345 Palisade Avenue, serving deep-fried hot dogs since 1932.

  • Cheeseburger slider with “red relish”
  • Hot dog with mustard
  • Fries on a paper plate with ketchup
  • Beer

Barnegat Light, NJ

Kubel’s Bar – Jersey Shore seafood at the northern tip of Long Beach Island.

  • Cup of New England clam chowder
  • Steamed clams in drawn butter
  • Fried clam strips and fried fish (cod?) with tartar sauce
  • Beer

Atlantic City, NJ

The Knife & Fork Inn – The former drinking and dining club established in 1912, witness to many Boardwalk Empire story lines.

  • Wedge salad
  • Pretzel-crusted swordfish over lump crab meat

Dock’s Oyster House – The seafood and steakhouse opened in 1897.

  • Crab cakes
  • Whole lobster stuffed with “crab imperial”

Baltimore Grill – Old-school red sauce Italian-American joint serving pizza until 3am. 2800 Atlantic Avenue.

  • Spaghetti and meatballs
  • Pizza
  • Beer

James’ Salt Water Taffy – On the Boardwalk at New York Avenue.

Camden, NJ

Tony & Ruth’s Steaks – Popular local grill at 837 North 8th Street.

  • Fried eggs, rice and beans
  • Steak and onions

Donkey’s Place – NJ’s answer to the Philly cheesesteak, at a bar opened by the Olympic (1928) boxer Leon Lucas.

  • “Jersey” cheesesteak with onions and hot peppers on a round, poppy seed, kaiser roll

Warren Grove, NJ

Lucille’s – Country kitchen in the Pine Barrens.

  • Chile in a cup with oyster crackers
  • Steak (or is it scrapple?), eggs and hash browns

Asbury Park, NJ

Frank’s Deli & Restaurant – Classic Jersey deli.

  • An Italian hoagie with ham, pepperoni, provolone, onion, tomato, roasted peppers, shredded lettuce, oil and vinegar
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Mapping Jersey Diversity Sat, 22 Nov 2014 20:18:49 +0000 If you live in New Jersey, you already know we live in one of the most diverse states in the country. Our ancestors hail from just about every nation you can name, and first-generation immigrants continue to arrive. One in five New Jersey residents was born outside the U.S. (only California and New York have higher percentages). Nowhere is better than the Garden State to find people from many cultures living in close proximity. That means plenty of good food to flag on the EthnicNJ map. Now EthnicNJ is mapping New Jersey’s ethnic ancestry too.

EthnicNJ MapWith the support of a NJ News Commons grant, EthnicNJ has added interactive demographic maps that shed light on the ethnic roots of New Jersey’s population. Three new EthnicNJ maps display ancestry and countries of birth information for each of New Jersey’s 21 counties and for 570 individual towns.

EthnicNJ maps are a resource for anyone seeking to better understand New Jersey’s rich ethnic landscape. EthnicNJ has become an indispensable tool for hungry Jersey food fans, mapping over 980 restaurants serving some fifty different cuisines. The EthnicNJ Food Map provides a unique, real-time picture of New Jersey’s ethnic communities, viewed through the lens of ethnic restaurants.

Mapping ethnic food in New Jersey reveals our state’s many ethnic enclaves. By displaying Census demographics visually on a color-coded map, you get a much clearer picture of New Jersey communities.

Ancestry MapUse the EthnicNJ Ancestry Map to see 106 different ancestries reported by New Jerseyans, from Afghan to Yugoslavian, and where they live. The United States Census collects population data annually in its American Community Survey. Because the Census collects information about Hispanic and Asian populations separately under the category “Race and Hispanic Origin,” there is a separate EthnicNJ Hispanic and Asian Ancestry Map. “Hispanic” includes people whose ancestors hail from the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, or from Spain. Asian includes people from any of sixteen specific Asian backgrounds, from Asian Indian to Vietnamese. The EthnicNJ Place of Birth Map , which includes Asian and Latin American countries together with the rest of the world, illustrates the countries of birth of New Jersey’s substantial foreign-born population, featuring 158 different birthplaces.

Place of Birth MapIf you are even a little bit of a geography geek like me, these maps are fun to explore, and a source of endless interesting demographic facts about New Jersey. Did you know, for example, that:

  • Jersey City, Newark and Elizabeth have the largest foreign-born populations.
  • Camden County is home to the largest Vietnamese community.
  • More Costa Ricans live in Summit than any other town.
  • Palisade Park’s foreign-born community is 43% Korean.
"Ellis Island in 1905" by A. Coeffler - Library of Congress via the American Heritage website. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“Ellis Island in 1905” by A. Coeffler – Library of Congress via the American Heritage website. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

EthnicNJ’s demographic maps can answer all kinds of questions about New Jersey’s population today. EthnicNJ is already using them to find the best food in New Jersey’s ethnic communities. I know Newark is the place to find excellent Brazilian food. I did not know Long Branch is now home to a significant Brazilian community. Sure enough, there are a couple of Brazilian steakhouses there that are now on my list of places to try.

Check out EthnicNJ to find New Jersey’s best food, and to see our ethnic origins, all on the map.

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New Jersey’s Super Bowl Food Guide Fri, 17 Jan 2014 14:16:18 +0000 New Jersey is hosting its first Super Bowl and hungry visitors who find themselves on this side of the Hudson are in for a treat. There’s no better place to eat well, cheaply. For a real taste of Jersey, skip the corporate hospitality tents and cruise ship hotels. Try some of the Garden State’s favorite ethnic food.

New Jersey's Super BowlOne of the benefits of living in the nation’s most densely populated state is food diversity that rivals any city in the country. Within a few miles of MetLife Stadium, in every direction, there are wonderful neighborhoods for ethnic cuisine. Head north on the NJ Turnpike for bulgogi and kimchi in Palisades Park; south for Portuguese cataplana, Brazilian pão de queijo and Spanish tapas in Newark‘s Ironbound, and biryani in Jersey City‘s Little India; east on Route 3 for Cuban lechón along Union City’s Bergenline Avenue; or west for shawarma in Paterson and ceviche in Passaic. These are just a few of the many food options. Of course, don’t forget to try some of the world’s best pizza, burgers, hot dogs and diners while you’re here.

Even if the Manhattan skyline is visible on the horizon, the first outdoor, cold weather Super Bowl XLVIII will kickoff in the swamps of Jersey. This is New Jersey’s Super Bowl after all (no matter how the event is marketed for television). If you are looking for excellent food, try some of these Jersey favorites, all less than 10 miles from the Meadowlands:


Stella's Empanadas - Kearny

Stella’s Empanadas – Kearny

La Fusta
Try the parilladas at this traditional Argentinian steakhouse.
1110 Tonnelle Ave – North Bergen, NJ  07047

Stella’s Empanadas
Grab handmade Argentinian empanadas to go.
615 Elm Street – Kearny, NJ  07032


Sliders @ White Mana

Sliders @ White Mana – Jersey City

There are two iconic slider spots – Hackensack’s White Manna and Jersey City’s White Mana – within striking distance of the Meadowlands. Try Krug’s Tavern in Newark for a classic pub-style burger. Or go a little crazy and try a Brazilian burger or Peruvian sandwich.

White Manna
358 River Street – Hackensack, NJ 07601

White Mana
470 Tonnele Avenue – Jersey City, NJ 07307

Sandwich @ Hamburgao - Kearny

Sandwich @ Hamburgão – Kearny

282 Kearny Avenue – Kearny, NJ

288 Lafayette Street – Newark, NJ 07105

El Mamut – Passaic

El Mamut
22 Broadway – Passaic, NJ 07055


Petite Soo Chow
Soup dumplings are the house specialty at this tiny Shanghainese spot.
607 Gorge Road – Cliffside Park, NJ  07010


El Unico - Union City

El Unico – Union City

El Unico
Chow down on heaping plates of lechón, ropa vieja, and rabo de ternera (oxtail) at this Cuban cafeteria in New Jersey’s “Havana on the Hudson.”
4211 Park Avenue – Union City, NJ 07087


Hobby’s Deli
Corned beef and matzoh ball soup in downtown Newark.
32 Branford Place – Newark, NJ  07102

Tick Tock Diner - Clifton, NJ

Tick Tock Diner – Clifton


For a true Jersey diner experience head to the Tick Tock (open 24 hours) on Route 3 West in Clifton or Tops in East Newark. Order Disco Fries.

Tick Tock Diner
281 Allwood Road – Clifton, NJ  07012

Tops Diner
500 Passaic Avenue – East Newark, NJ  07029

Hot Dogs

Sri Ganesh’s Dosa House – Jersey City

Rutt’s Hut
Order a deep fried “ripper” and top it with yellow relish.
417 River Road – Clifton, NJ 07014


Sri Ganesh’s Dosa House
The widest variety of dosas – South India’s signature street food – in New Jersey.
809 Newark Avenue – Jersey City, NJ 07306


Pork Ramen @ Mitsua - Edgewater

Pork Ramen @ Mitsua – Edgewater

Mitsuwa Marketplace
Warm up with some of the best ramen around at this Japanese market and food court.
595 River Road – Edgewater, NJ 07020


Pho Thai-Lao Kitchen
The husband and wife running the kitchen are from Laos and Thailand, respectively. The whole pickled fish is amazing.
219 Maywood Avenue – Maywood, NJ 07607


Oh! Calamares
Arroz chaufa (Peruvian fried rice), ceviches and yuca with Huancaina sauce, and a full bar.
102 Kearny Avenue – Kearny, NJ 07032


Pizza @ Mancinni's - Montclair

Pizza @ Mancinni’s – Montclair

If you want to start a long, heated conversation, ask a local about their favorite Jersey pizza joint. Too many to pick just one. Trust the judgment of Pete Genovese, one of the most knowledgable Jersey food writers. Check out his recommendations here.


Piast Meats & Provisions
The Packers didn’t make it out of the playoffs, but you can still enjoy homemade kielbasa and pierogi right here in Jersey.
1 Passaic Street – Garfield, NJ 07026


Shrimp Pho @ Binh Duong - Bloomfield

Shrimp Pho @ Binh Duong – Bloomfield

Seabra’s Marisqueira
For abundant fresh Portuguese seafood, you can’t do better than Seabra’s in Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood.
87 Madison Street – Newark, NJ 07105


Binh Duong
Any of the rice noodle soups here, like beef or spicy pork phở are guaranteed to warm you up.
61 1/2 Belleville Avenue – Bloomfield, NJ 07003

Find these restaurants and more of New Jersey’s best ethnic food on the map at

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New Jersey’s Feast of the Seven Fishes Tue, 24 Dec 2013 16:41:42 +0000 For many Italian-American families in New Jersey, Christmas Eve means seafood. Every year in mid-December, family cooks from Bayonne to Bellmawr start to count fishes, making sure that the Holiday menu includes at least seven.

Verducci Christmas Eve dinner, circa 1951, South Orange, NJ

Verducci Christmas Eve dinner, 1951



The “Feast of the Seven Fishes” (Festa dei Sette Pesci) has its roots in Southern Italy, where observant Roman Catholics abstained from eating meat or milk products on Fridays, and on the day before Holy days like Christmas. On Christmas Eve, the traditional supper was exclusively seafood, usually fried in oil. Fish is also associated with early Christians who used a fish symbol to identify themselves in times of persecution. The significance of the number seven? Religious interpretations point to the seven Sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church, the seven virtues in the Catholic catechism, and Biblical references like God resting on the seventh day. The number could also refer to the Seven Hills of Rome, or just be a lucky number. Some families feature nine, eleven or even thirteen fishes in their annual meal. Why “fishes”? Because “Seven Fishes” means seven different species of fish.

Smelts in the Pan

Smelts in the Pan

The great Italian migration to the United States between the 1880s and the 1930s, brought thousands of Southern Italians to the Northeast, my own ancestors among them. Their seafood feast came with them.

Mussels Marinara

Mussels Marinara

My mother remembers Christmas Eve meals in the 1950s at her Grandmother’s house on Third Street in South Orange. Antoinette Verducci, the Italian-born matriarch from Calabria, prepared the meal, which always included baccalà (salt cod), mussels in a spicy marinara sauce, fried smelts and pastas with seafood sauces. The annual spread also included pizza fritta (fried dough) served with tomato sauce and zeppole (deep-fried dough balls) with powdered sugar, the highlight of the meal for my mom and her cousins. Mom avoided the smelts, a tiny fish (Osmeridae) caught in coastal estuaries.

Clams Oreganata

Clams Oreganata

The Italian tradition of the Feast of the Seven Fishes lives on in New Jersey, and seems to have become more popular, or at least better remembered, in recent years. Restaurants across the Garden State have begun to offer the traditional Christmas Eve seafood feast in December. Younger generations are counting their fishes and rediscovering some of the seafood dishes prepared by the first generation Italian-Americans.

Pulpo (Octopus)

Pulpo (Octopus)

Italian cooking relies on fresh, local ingredients. For immigrant families with limited resources, the seafood selections in New Jersey were not fancy. Like all good cooks, Italian-Americans took what was cheap and abundant, applied familiar techniques and recipes from back home, and transformed simple food into memorable meals.

Live Eels

Live Eels

For decades, preparations for the Feast have begun at the local Jersey fish market. Barbera Fish Market in Atlantic City has been selling the fishes for South Jersey Italian feasts since 1919. Dominic Alcaro, who bought the market in 1985, is a first generation immigrant himself. His parents emigrated from Calabria in 1961 when he was six years old. Dominic still remembers his Grandfather walking back from the Italian waterfront with the eels, sepia (cuttlefish) and whiting for the Christmas Eve meal.

Today, Barbera Fish Market sells some of the same fish species in New Jersey, but the most popular Seven Fishes have changed over the years. Alcaro used to sell as many as 600 eels in December. These days he sells about 150. Alcaro sources them from local fisherman and offers eels both live and cooked. The fish market’s older customers order eel, baccalà, octopus and calamari to serve on Christmas Eve; younger customers prefer shrimp, flounder and seabass (branzino).

Mike Marino and Frank Montalbano

Mike Marino and Frank Montalbano

“We still sell smelt in December, but not eel,” says Mike Marino, owner of Marino’s Fine Foods, an Italian seafood market and deli in Springfield.  “Cleaning the eel properly is time consuming and not enough people cook it anymore.” Mike’s father, Gasper, opened the family’s first fish market, Hillside Seafood House, in 1961. Popular Holiday items at Marino’s today are fish fillets (flounder, cod, haddock), shrimp, clams and squid.

I sat down with Mike and Frank Montalbano, who sells fish for the Fulton Fish Market in the Bronx, over a plate of fried calamari with marinara sauce. Marino’s version is very lightly breaded. The secret to good fried calamari, says Marino, is to flour it lightly without any seasoning, and fry it quickly in oil that is at least 370 degrees. “Quality squid should have a slightly salty taste on its own,” Mike assures me.

Fries Smelts

Fried Smelts

Frank swears by Marino’s version. “Nobody makes it better,” he claims. “Mike does it right.” Frank isn’t just Mike’s fish supplier, by the way. Their family roots go back to the same Sicilian fishing village of Sciacca.

Squid (Calamari)

Squid (Calamari)

Mike and Frank, who together have more than 80 years experience in the New Jersey fish business, question whether independent fish markets are sustainable. “Fewer people cook these days, and less people buy from specialty fish markets,” says Marino. It’s not surprising to them that restaurants are starting to offer a meal that traditionally was prepared and eaten at home. Marino’s sells imported Italian foods, has added table service, and expanded its menu beyond fish to keep up. “During the holidays, we used to stop selling prepared items to focus on fresh fish sales,” Marino recalls. “Today, catering and prepared platters are a much larger part of our business.”

According to Montalbano, at Fulton, the East Coast’s most important wholesale fish market, there’s a noticeable uptick in certain fish sales in December, items like baccalà, scungilli (marine snails) and the smelts that appear on Italian-American tables.

Fried Calamari

Fried Calamari

Every family’s fishes are different, but Garden State menus usually include a few of the Italian-American red sauce standbys like Baccalà in Tomato Sauce, Mussels in a Spicy Marinara Sauce and Fried Calamari. My grandfather insisted that fried smelts be on the table every year. Really old school families still serve Eel Stewed in Tomato Sauce (Anguilla in Umido).

Flounder Fillet

Flounder Fillet

I asked Mike Marino what his family usually did on Christmas Eve. “Suffer is what we did for Christmas,” he says. “I dreaded Christmas growing up because we had to work,” Marino remembers. “From mid-December, we worked seven days a week, twenty hours a day, to get everyone their Christmas fish orders. At our house, all we do is sleep once we get home on Christmas Eve.”

FishDominic Alcaro sees the Feast continuing to be “mostly a home holiday.” Alcaro’s parents continued the traditional feast in the United States, and now Dominic is the host. After the last customer picks up their Holiday fish order from Barbera Fish Market, Dominic hosts some fifty family members at his home in Gloucester, Camden County. His menu sticks to seven fishes, but Alcaro prepares each fish different ways for a total of fifteen to twenty fish dishes on the table. Baccalà salad and stew are popular in his family. Alcaro not only fries his smelts, the “easy way,” he points out, but also sautés them with tomatoes, olive oil, garlic and onion.

Three FishesAfter feasting on all that seafood, Alcaro’s family gathers around an elaborate Nativity scene adorned with figurines carved by his father. They sing Italian Christmas songs (like Tu scendi dalle stele – “You Come Down From the Stars”) and the youngest family member places the baby Jesus in the manger at midnight. “The Feast of the Seven Fishes is all about sacrifice and giving thanks,” says Alcaro. “It’s wonderful to see the Italian family tradition live on.”

The Feast of the Seven Fishes is alive and well in New Jersey, where one in five residents claim Italian ancestry. Most Feasts will take place at homes across the Garden State this Christmas Eve. Everyone who sits down at a table laden with seven or more fishes this Holiday is sharing an Italian-American meal that represents religious tradition, local ingredients, humble food transformed, and, most likely, a memorable family gathering.

Buon Natale e buon appetito!

Feast of the Seven Fishes Menus


  • Scungilli Salad
  • Mussels in Spicy Marinara Sauce
  • Fried Smelts
  • Flounder Fillet
  • Linguini with Red Clam Sauce
  • Baccalà (salt cod) in Tomato Sauce
  • Eel Stewed in Tomato Sauce


  • Shrimp Cocktail
  • Clams Oreganata
  • Fried Calamari with Marinara Sauce
  • Zuppa di Pesce (Fish Soup)
  • Seared Scallops
  • Lobster Fra Diavalo over Linguini
  • Whole Grilled Branzino (Seabass)

Fried SmeltsRecipe: Fried Smelts

Courtesy of Patricia Mercadante


  • Vegetable oil (for frying)
  • 40 smelts, fresh or frozen (about 3 lbs.)
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. sea salt
  • 1 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 4 lemons, cut into wedges


If frozen, defrost the smelts. Some people fry and eat smelts whole, especially the smallest ones. Our family prefers smelts butterflied. To clean whole smelts, make a straight cut along the belly with a small knife from under the head to the tail. Turn the smelt over and cut halfway into the fish just behind the head. Pull the head down and back to remove the innards and tiny backbone. Use your fingers and running water to pull and rinse away any remaining bits. Drop each cleaned fish into a bowl of ice water.

Pour oil into a large skillet to a depth of 1”. Heat oil over medium-high heat to 350° (or until a small piece of bread dropped in the oil immediately bubbles and rises to the top).

Mix the flour, salt and pepper in a plastic bag.

Cook the smelts in batches, depending on the size of your skillet. Drain the smelts and toss about ten in the bag at a time. Shake off excess flour and drop each smelt into the oil. Stir to make sure they don’t stick together. Cook until golden brown, turning over once if necessary, 3 to 4 minutes.

Drain the fried smelts on paper towels and serve immediately with the lemon wedges. (Serves 4 to 6)


An abbreviated version of this post originally appeared as “7 Fishes” in Edible Jersey Magazine (Holiday 2013).