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Bada-Boom, Bada-Bing!

Il Villino, Valentino's, Mr. Martino's, Capo Vaticano, Luciano's--theme dining in New Jersey, Corleone-style

By Christina Waters

EVERYBODY LOVES to make fun of New Jersey. The accent alone produces a flush of smugness--the dems, deezes and dozes we associate with the land that gave us Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen and Linda Tripp. The atmosphere is odious with moral corruption, what with organized crime, legalized gambling and, of course, those pesky anthrax letters. One can even smoke right out in the open in the birthplace of Jack Nicholson.

Yes, there is much to mock in the most polluted pocket of the lower 48. What's left of the Delaware River is a chemical goulash of industrial wastes a hundred years thick. Strip malls have replaced most of the region's pasture lands, and blue sky is unknown to anyone under the age of 75.

But there is cause for happiness. Serious, edible cause. New Jersey is lousy with good-to-great Italian food. So full of Italian restaurants is the state of New Jersey that many residents think Christopher Columbus came from Hoboken. Italian restaurants must be visible from every street corner, crosswalk and turnpike of every city, village and suburb of the Garden State. It's the law--at least it is for members of some of Jersey's leading, how shall I put this, underground families.

From a safe distance of 3,000 miles, I can comment on the continuing tradition of Mafia dining that has filled the state that is "not New York" with some of the finest marinara this side of Napoli. Even if a restaurant's name does not end with "o" (see the above list of selected dining spots), chances are that locals (and their godfathers) spend more dining dollars on eating Italian than on any other ethnic specialty.

Actually, so Italian is the everyday cuisine of your basic Jerseyite, that Italian restaurants aren't considered "ethnic." They're as American as John Gotti. Take Il Villino, near Ramsey, one of those former somewheres that is now only a tired corridor of fast-food and chain motel rest stops en route to the Poconos.

Tired, hungry and determined not to stoop to a Chevy's, we finally made our way to a dining room whose clock had stopped decades before Joe Bonanno died. Bowling trophies lined the baby grand in the foyer; the bar was festooned with ashtrays and artificial orchids. But the white linens were vintage. Almost as vintage as the waiters in tuxes with dyed hair.

Photos of the owner with various gubernatorial candidates surrounded our booth, but God, the homemade raviolis with bolognese were divine. So was a thick, juicy veal chop served with mashed potatoes--none of that sissy California cuisine crap--washed down with a better-than-decent chianti classico.

Waiters in tuxedos. You just don't get a lot of that in the West--it's kinda sweet in the same way that a Corleone wedding is sweet. Just don't eavesdrop on your neighbor's conversation.

Land of Big Hair

Another restaurant we like to visit when on extended family holidays is Valentino's of Morristown. Valentino's exists in an era before Tony Soprano, in a land where it is always cocktail time, and the maitre d' actually wrings his hands over finding you a table.

Here are many white-haired guys in expensive suits dining with Anna Nicole look-alikes with big hair. (Big hair is big in Jersey.) Valentino's offers Old World service--very heavy on tuxedos and a prominent pastry cart. Those of us who brace ourselves for the "Hi! My name is Sean. I'll be your server. Have a nice day" style of service are both charmed and amused by the formality of Jersey's high-end Italian restaurants. There simply are no female waiters here. It's a world of guys named Tony, and they are not about to let patrons touch that wine bottle or pour their own San Pellegrino water.

We love the caprese at Valentino's, where the house lasagna is pure opera, and the filetto is like buttah. Bada-bing! But there's more to Italian dining in Jersey. Near the opulent indoor shopping mecca of Short Hills--where Carmella Soprano and her impeccably coiffed girlfriends all shop--the little suburb of Florham Park has a tiny place next to a florist's called (I have no reason to lie) Capo Vaticano.

Now if the pope or his Cosa Nostra representatives were to eat here, they would discover sensitive pasta fagioli and Caesar salad Dean Martin would die for if he weren't already dead.

How many lunch spots in California can whip up an authentic, peasant dish like pasta fagioli? Exactly. But here, in the veritable heart of Jersey, surrounded by the Oranges--East Orange, West Orange, South Orange and Orange (pronounced ah-runge)-- you can have it your way, while listening to the theme from The Godfather.

Occasionally, one crosses the Jersey line to forage in a city that is Jersey-Italian at heart: Philadelphia. South Philly is the all-Italian heart of the capital of U.S. of A. independence. Here the guys with barely concealed shoulder holsters join crowds of other paisans eating pizza and talking loudly with their mouths full at outdoor, neon-lit pasta parlors.

You know you're not in Palo Alto anymore, especially when you stumble on Mr. Martino's, a place so Jersey I expected to see Joe Pesci at a back table. A mom-and-pop gem, Mr. Martino's fills the ground floor of a 19th-century brick building, with 30-foot-high pressed tin ceilings and a tiny menu long on homemade sausage with polenta. Part speakeasy, part Sicilian kitchen, it has everything the enlightened capo di tutti capo could want, including discreet management.

At the end of our visit to Jersey last month, we headed to our favorite motel on Long Beach Island, a mere 60 miles north of Atlantic City, whose lights sparkle gaudily in the distance. On this narrow strand of summer homes founded in the mid-17th-century by pirates and Protestants, we've dined with Mafia families at Luciano's and Roberto's. Alas, both are now gone--suggesting a downturn in even mob economy--but one night at Luciano's treated us to the spectacle of a boisterous made man, encrusted with diamond rings and gold chains, urging an entourage of at least 20 women, children and ancient men to "order anything on the menu--I'm buyin'."

This is lust for life that could give lessons. And the kitchen responded with plates of roast chicken, platters of pot roast, whole lobsters and crabs and pasta to kill for. At this modest establishment--no liquor license, BYOB--I enjoyed a seafood fettucine so perfect, so uplifting that it remains a culinary high-water mark.

And so was my last meal in Jersey, a thoroughly non-Californian invitation to eat baked ziti with impunity--baked ziti oozing cheese, Italian sausage and marinara-basted slow-cooked pork. It was an offer I couldn't refuse, and a meal fit for a consigliere. Extreme Italian dining--it should be an Olympic event, instead of merely the secret gastronomic territory of the savvy Mafioso.

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From the October 2-9, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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