Prior to 2020, New Jersey was experiencing a restaurant renaissance. Home-grown talent like rising-star chef Robbie Felice got some James Beard attention. Even renowned New York City chefs took a stab at the Garden State. From Montclair to Asbury Park, the best North Jersey restaurants were helping our little state find its culinary identity. You had to wonder if maybe the time had finally come when big-city food critics would actually take note.
With indoor dining in New Jersey reopened at 25 percent capacity (and so many rooftops and revamped outdoor spaces) we can finally enjoy our favorite New Jersey restaurants in 2020 again—that is, without carrying out a brown paper bag. While I’ll forever mourn the loss of some of my Jersey favorites (RIP Modine), there are so many still open that need our support as we transition into the frigid, dogged days of Jersey winter.
During my last 10 years in publishing, I’ve had the good fortune to meet some remarkable chefs in the local restaurant scene. Choosing favorites wasn’t easy (or free of bias). But if you’re wondering where to eat in North Jersey, this list will do the trick.
Jersey City, NJ
I’ve had an obsession with Frankie ever since they hit the scene two years ago. This restaurant is the Aussie-inspired brainchild of owners Rebecca Johnson and Rowen McDermott, the latter of whom is a Sydney native. Frankie pays homage to Australia’s Art Deco scene with references to surf culture and neon signage.
Amidst the craft cocktail craze, Frankie stands out with its uniquely curated natural wine list (a must-visit for any wine lover). Selling a bulk of their inventory to local customers is one of the strategies that kept this Jersey City hotspot afloat during the 2020 pandemic. With indoor dining hopefully increasing and the expansions made to their outdoor section, Frankie is a fall bucket list stop for sure. McDermott describes their cuisine as New American dining with influences from Southeast Asia, Britain and the Mediterranean. Starters like their housemade hummus with turmeric and fried chickpeas look almost too good to eat (order it blindly every time you visit).
One of the great things about Frankie is that you can have a completely different palate experience every time you go. Feeling a little adventurous? Order a bottle of Pet Nat from South Australia with Maine pollock and green curry. Looking for a sure bet? Fish n’ chips with a craft cocktail. Had a long week? A burger with cheddar and garlic aioli with a shot and a beer is the perfect remedy. All in all, Frankie has doled out some marquee creations such as my all-time favorite cocktail, the Lovely Creature. The drink features mezcal punch, spiced pineapple, jalapeno and bell pepper inside a lovely ceramic frog. Mezcal has exploded in the last handful of years, and I’m here for it. If it’s spicy, even better.
View Frankie’s menu.
Chef-owner Ryan DePersio is a pioneer in the North Jersey restaurant scene. He’s had an impressive career as any local chef—spending time at Enoteca Pinchiorri, a three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Florence, Italy. That’s before he opened several great places here in New Jersey—namely Battello and Kitchen Step, both in Jersey City. But Fascino will always be what I remember him for.
At just 25, DePersio broke the mold with his “Italian without borders” when he opened Fascino in 2003. “Coming from an Italian family my grandparents loved to cook, my great grandparents, everyone was a cook. We made fresh pasta, stuffed artichokes, and we spent every Sunday at my grandparent’s house until I was almost 20,” he told me in a 2016 interview. When you eat at Fascino, those influences still ring true.
This year, facing limited space, the team at Fascino created one of the most intimate (pandemic-friendly) sidewalk spaces for outdoor diners—with BYO delivery and sealed silverware. Even though things will begin to shift indoors, the level of service is a reminder of why we need OGs like Fascino to stick around. Classics like Chef DePersio’s ricotta gnocchi are still on the menu of course. Newer dishes like swiss chard and mascarpone agnolotti with oregano-brown butter sauce were a welcomed sight during my last visit.
View Fascino’s menu. BYO.
In case you’ve been living under a rock, Chef Robbie Felice has been stealing the spotlight over the last few years. When we think of North Jersey’s restaurant renaissance, we immediately think of Hudson, Bergen, Essex and even Morris Counties. But at just 26-years-old, Felice put Passaic County on the foodie map with his modern take on traditional Italian at Viaggio. Back in 2016, during Viaggio’s opening months, the young chef wowed me and my dinner party with a barrage of homemade pasta and his in-house salumi program. Viaggio nods to the old country in both look and spirit. The interior’s rustic, Tuscan farmhouse feel and Felice’s experience inside Michelin-starred kitchens make for a unique pairing with the young chef’s creativity and tenacity.
Fast-forward to early 2020, Felice went on to open a second restaurant—Osteria Crescendo—and was getting some much-earned attention from the James Beard Foundation as a “Rising Star Chef.” Not soon after, Felice, like so many others, had to reinvent Viaggio to combat the pitfalls of the current pandemic. First opening up a marketplace for discerning customers and later launching a refined take on Italian sandwiches with an innovative to-go menu.
Felice has knowledge of old school Italian cooking. Rather than simply reproducing the classics (which he can certainly do well), Viaggio focuses on a modern approach to Italian cuisine. Here, everything is in the details. Felice and his team put high-quality ingredients at the forefront of their strategy. When you couple that with Felice’s food IQ, you get what’s easily the best restaurant in Passaic County. What’s more, Felice’s menu is constantly evolving with the seasons. North Jersey favorites like Felice’s calamari fritti with lemon butter and chili always stay on the menu. But there’s a lot to be excited about this fall with new dishes like Viaggio’s ricotta cavatelli with butternut squash, pumpkin seed gremolata and sage.
View the Viaggio menu. BYO.
Everything about Summit House screams local hospitality; it’s no wonder co-owner Dylan Baker spent years as a resort manager for Four Seasons. Edwardian-style coffered ceilings, triple hung Victorian windows and exposed brick embody the spirit of Summit. “The whole idea was to pretend Summit House had been here forever,” Baker said after first opening. With items like his family’s American flag from the 1800s framed proudly amidst the restaurant’s backdrop, it really does feel that way.
The restaurant is the creation of four Summit, NJ residents who all remain friends to this day. Summit House opened in 2017 after nearly five years of concepting. And despite the modern-meets-colonial mood, the cuisine at Summit House is very much New American. Former “Hell’s Kitchen” finalist (and Lyndhurst, NJ native) Chef Justin Antiorio took over in the kitchen in 2019 after spending time at other Garden State restaurants such as Anthony David’s and Bin 14 in Hoboken. Since joining the team, he has focused the menu on locally-sourced, approachable fare that is refined but unpretentious.
Some Eastern influences infiltrate the starters like seared peppercorn crusted tuna with Colatura sauce, pine nuts, marinated eggplant and baby bok choy; and octopus with coconut sticky rice, shishitos, General Tso sauce and scallion mint basil salad. For entrées, Antiorio and the kitchen offer up an eclectic mix of land and sea that is fitting for the season. The dinner menu features dishes such as a tagliatelle with blue crab pomodoro and a Berkshire pork chop made with smoked pumpkin puree, marinated fennel, shallot, swiss chard, barley risotto and a stout glaze. With room on the street to dine (for now) and a large interior, Summit House is on my list to return to this fall.
View the Summit House menu.
Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen
My initial visit to Jockey Hollow was right after they opened in 2016. First, it was a craft cocktail and raw bar towers. Then it was pâté to rosé. And by the time entrées came, I was as mesmerized as I was when I asked out my first girlfriend in junior high (she said yes). Since then, it’s an understatement to say that Jockey Hollow in Morristown is one of the state’s premier dining destinations.
Set inside an old, 15,000-square-foot Palazzo-style mansion, this venue features four completely unique dining areas offering one-of-a-kind experiences for diners. I’ll admit when the pandemic hit and so many of our culinary favorites had their futures put in jeopardy, I was worried about Jockey Hollow—solely because of the sheer size of their space. But as they say, the cream always rises to the top. Cannon and his team made expanded use of their stunning grounds with additional patio seating during the summer. Today, they’ve taken steps to make menus accessible via QR codes, improved their air filtration systems and beefed up their outdoor heaters to keep outdoor dining alive.
If you want a night out to feel special, Jockey Hollow should always be at the top of your list. Inside or outside, the grounds of the Vail Mansion (and the menu) evoke a sense of refinement that’s both elegant and lively. Jockey Hollow is also another road trip stop to add for wine lovers, Cannon and his team are masters of curation. Jockey might have style, but that’s not to say it’s unapproachable or pretentious. Last year I attended a Cannonball Wine Dinner which was led by Cannon himself. To my surprise, one of the best pairings he showcased was an inexpensive Greek wine. It was a reminder of how broad the restaurant’s knowledge of wine and food really is.
During my last visit in September, I ordered the pan-roasted duck breast with lentils, cippolini onion and kabocha squash. It was a fitting dish for the season and a must-try for anyone who loves duck.
View the Jockey Hollow menu.
After the success of Viaggio, one might assume Robbie Felice’s second restaurant would be something of a carbon copy. Fresh pasta is still a staple—albeit different from Viaggio—but the energy of Osteria Crescendo is entirely its own. The aptly named “Paradiso Ravioli” made with six different Italian cheeses brandishes vibrant, farm-fresh yellow and red zig-zags of Calabrian chili oil—is a dish one could never grow tired of. “I don’t work 18 hours a day to create the same thing over and over again,” Felice exclaimed when I visited just weeks before opening in 2019.
Unlike Viaggio, this is no Tuscan farmhouse. Restaurant number two for Felice is hip and modern but still pays homage to the style of old country craftsmanship with details like marble tabletops, Italian-style cocktails and an all-Italian wine list. Osteria Crescendo is a restaurant so good, it has no business being in Jersey. But that’s exactly the sort of thinking Felice is trying to change. Here, show-stopping large-format entrées—Per la Tavola—add a bit of showmanship. We’re talking massive, dry-aged tomahawk ribeyes and whole fried octopus that look as if Kobayashi would struggle to finish.
Felice has had to scale back a little on large-format and his dining room’s community table amidst the pandemic. But he never wavers when it comes to creativity, mirroring some to-go success he had at Viaggio and constantly leaving us wondering what new dish he’ll come up with next. On the eve of his second restaurant’s opening, he said, “I’m taking things to the next level.” And honestly, he wasn’t lying.
View Osteria Crescendo’s menu.
The first time I ate at Samba, I knew before I got my entrée that I’d be back. The Brazilian restaurant located right off Bloomfield Ave in downtown Montclair has a unique charm unlike any other in North Jersey. It was born from chef-owner Ilson Gonçalves’ passion for Brazilian home-style cooking. Gonçalves even published his very own cookbook in 2017, which is still available on Amazon today.
The only thing more impressive than the food is Gonçalves’ journey. The Brazil-born chef came to the States with next to nothing, leaving behind a career in finance in his home country. Here he pursued culinary school, and eventually, opened Samba. In 2020, Gonçalves took another risk by taking over the vacant space next door to increase both indoor and outdoor seating.
If I had a dollar for every time a waiter here flashed me that gleeful “you again?” smile, I’d be a rich man. It’s simply because everyone from Gonçalves to his wait staff are down-to-earth and all-around good people.
On the dietary front, their ability to put innovative creations like a dairy-free cheesecake (that’s honestly better than most real cheesecakes) is what puts this menu in its own class. Samba’s take on new-style cuisine fused with Brazilian home-style cooking like their iconic Feijoada dish which is slow-cooked for 24 hours is a balance of hearty and healthy. It’s also worth noting that Samba became the first and only certified gluten-free restaurant in the state this year. Every time I visit, I can’t stay away from the “bolinho” — yuca pastry appetizers that come in a selection of different fillings. If you’re a meat-eater, go for the dried beef and butternut squash. If you’re vegan, no problem. Order the yuca, corn and hearts of palm.
View Samba’s menu. BYO.
Jersey City, NJ
A few years ago, Saddle River Inn star chef, Jamie Knott, turned a literal cellar on the outskirts of downtown Jersey City into one of the state’s dining hotspots. Cellar 335’s tiki-filled ambiance is one thing I’m looking forward to most as indoor dining restrictions in NJ begin to (hopefully) ease up. The indoor—and now newly built outdoor—atmosphere features murals by local artist Mr. MustArt and an array of other luau-inspired feels makes Cellar 335 in instant classic that Jersey should hang on to for dear life.
This is one of the best places to share food at, with the team’s Neo Asian-influenced menu highlighted by avocado fried rice and Korean-style wings. Since they opened a few years back, this has always been one of my favorite date spots, one where drinks come in everything from skulls to tiki mugs. (If you’re reading this, please bring back the chicken wontons.) Through 2020’s trials and tribulations, Cellar 335’s Peter Arnone led the charge to legalize to-go cocktails (if only for a short while), a petition that no doubt helped all North Jersey restaurants with a liquor license stay the course.
View Cellar 335’s menu.
Jersey City, NJ
Another smash hit from Chef Ryan DePersio. Right on the water, Battello is home to easily the best view of any North Jersey restaurant. DePersio’s “Italian without borders” is on full display along with a healthy amount of seafood options like lobster risotto and seared sea scallops. With previous pier closures and now a pandemic to boot, for a restaurant that once operated with a staff of nearly 100, Battello hasn’t had it easy over the last couple of years.
It was great to see this iconic, North Jersey restaurant return from a long hiatus. Battello classic has reclaimed its former glory since reopening in 2019. They’ve even opened up their massive-Manhattan facing doors during good weather for diners to sit outside on the water. (View my story on Battello’s relaunch.)
View the Battello menu.
As I made the rounds years ago at the New Jersey Wine and Food Festival—which feels like something of a distant memory—I remember stopping dead in my tracks when trying chef-owner Ehren Ryan’s subtle offers. Like the restaurant—minimal, rustic—the food is simple on paper, but not in taste. “We’re making dishes more simple, but more punchy in flavor,” Ryan explained.
Common Lot might be categorized as New American, but there’s a lot of welcomed Southeast Asian influence in play. The braised pork belly—with fish sauce caramel, chili, mint, Thai basil and lettuce— is a welcome take on the popular street food so many of us have grown to drool over. Restaurants like Common Lot are on the forefront of defining New Jersey’s best culinary characteristics—simple, audacious, refined but unpretentious.
View the Common Lot menu. BYO.
South + Pine
After spending eight years under Bobby Flay, Leia Gaccione opened South + Pine in Morristown, NJ. Tucked over on South Street, the young chef’s motto of “Food. Peace. Love.” echoes the sentiments of her menu—which takes comfort food a step beyond what I thought was possible. If you have an itch to scratch with classic indulgences such as chicken and waffles, South + Pine is the place to go. Gaccione’s “Fried Chix 2.0” comes with a polenta and salumi waffle with Calabrian chili honey. If you don’t order it you’re either vegan or simply mad.Last year, Digest food writer, Peter Candia, said:
“Dishes put in front of you resemble in both taste and visuals something that you may receive at a restaurant with a strict dress code. This is what sets South + Pine apart for me. I have a guilty pleasure for the gluttonous, the meals that are inaccessible for many. They may make you feel like you’re on the set of a movie when you eat them, but their aesthetics often skew your opinions on the actuality of the meal itself. The affordability and casual atmosphere of a restaurant like South + Pine is always there to bring me back into reality.”
And honestly, I can’t think of a better way to put it. After working closely with members of the community of Morristown in 2020, Gaccione and her new restaurant are still standing, despite all this year has thrown her way.
View the South + Pine menu. BYO.
Like Jockey Hollow, Sofia makes great use of their outdoor patio and brand new space heaters (how are those still in stock?). Sofia’s speakeasy cigar bar meets chic, Italian steakhouse vibe (and actual wood-grilled steaks) are worth the trip if you’re from out of town. The front of the restaurant has a modern, sophisticated vibe; while the back features an indoor/outdoor garden room draped with ceiling vines that precede its back patio. With plenty of space in front and out back, Sofia is in it for the long haul.
North Jersey’s foodie renaissance wouldn’t have been possible without trailblazers like chef-owner Anthony Bucco. The first time I met Bucco, he and Felina’s Chef de Cuisine Martyna Krowicka were at the helm of the highly-regarded Restaurant Latour. Before that, Bucco spent his tour de force lifting New Jersey greats such as the historic Ryland Inn, Stage Left and Uproot. Taking all he’s learned about sourcing ingredients in this state, he’s back. But this time, it’s at a restaurant of his very own in Felina.
Located on the corner of East Ridgewood Ave and Prospect Street, Felina occupies the site of an old bank vault and former office space. But the ambiance is a far cry from its past, with a warmly-lit industrial-meets-reclaimed wood atmosphere. Everything from the food to the decor at Felina is deceptively simple—the details, however, are anything but. Felina is a maturation of Chef Bucco’s cooking throughout his career: a modern, Italian twist on seasonal, locally-sourced ingredients. As we sat just outside Latour a few years back, he told me, “Our contribution to the culinary scene is our ability to support the small farmer in the area and show tremendous respect for those ingredients.”
Though Felina might’ve only been a concept at the time, his philosophy then definitely translated to what he and Chef Krowicka are doing at Felina in Ridgewood. Felina’s cuisine is a culmination of rich, housemade pasta and fresh New Jersey vegetables that speak to the seasons. The vibe is modern but refreshingly laid back. Felina’s cocktails pay homage to its ingredient-rich menu, and its wine list—like Latour’s wine cellar—is heavily influenced by European wineries. A picturesque fall favorite is back at Felina—heirloom beets with goat cheese mousse, coffee crumb and mint. Though you’ll want to save room for the rest of Bucco’s hearty lineup, dishes like this can tell you a lot about the creativity in the rest of the menu.
View Felina’s menu.
Faubourg is the restaurant Montclair didn’t know it needed until it was here. I remember walking past the dramatic, sprawling two-level space during its construction. I couldn’t fathom what it would become. For an interior that was a literal bank in years past, Faubourg offers North Jersey a restaurant built on modern French cuisine that’s approachable, and fun to look at from outside the floor-to-ceiling windows that run the full height of the building.
Beyond the intricacies of their cuisine, the different atmospheric experiences one could have, although now more limited during the pandemic, is one of the things that makes Faubourg truly unique. Their outdoor patio is easily one of the chicest, well-heated (firepits and commercial heaters) in the state. “A French brasserie is where people come in to dine, meet friends. It’s very much like when you go to a faubourg. In France, a faubourg is a place where you can visit that has little shops and restaurants. It feels like Montclair,” managing partner, and Daniel Boulud alum, Olivier Muller explained in a 2019 interview.
View Faubourg’s menu.
Sirenetta Seafood & Raw Bar
While sister restaurant Sorellina (another great place to visit) has positioned itself as a Hoboken staple, newly-opened Sirenetta is already generating buzz for its fresh seafood, homemade desserts, and date night vibes. Taking over the former (iconic) location of Maxwell’s, Sirentta is primed to become the new crown jewel of Uptown Hoboken. My staff has already raved about it and given Sorellina’s success. It’s high time we all made our way greet the new kid on the block. (Check back for our review on Sirenetta later in October.)
View Sirenetta’s menu.
What North Jersey restaurants are you looking forward to trying before 2020 is up? Drop us a line.
About the Author/s
Michael is the Editor-in-Chief of New Jersey Digest, COO of X Factor Media, and an avid writer. Growing up in Bergen County, he discovered his passion for words while in Friday detention. Michael loves kayaking, a fat glass of Nebbiolo, and over-editing.