Sometimes I think that I will need a second lifetime to visit all the legendary pizza places in Jersey. Not wanting to waste any time in this one, I took Dad for a Sunday afternoon journey to try one that I missed once before when I didn’t check to see that they don’t do lunch. Driving down the New Jersey Turnpike past Newark Airport, was the yellow Spirit Airlines plane flying overhead an omen about our trip to Elizabeth’s Spirito’s Restaurant & Tavern?
Spirito’s is a neighborhood tavern that sits on a corner in an old residential area. With dirty mounds of snow lining the city streets, we were more than blessed to find a parking spot right in front of the bar entrance. Still empty just after their 3pm opening, we stayed in the rustic bar area instead of the restaurant on the other side of the building.
Taking seats in an old green-painted wooden booth, we were greeted with a “Have you been here before?” to set up the friendly warning that they took cash only. Spirito’s is now on its fourth generation of family ownership since 1932. Looking around the room, were it not for the two flat screens at each of the long bar, it could have been 1932. The vintage cash register, phone booth and cigarette machine were all signs of an earlier and simpler time.
As always, the menu listing of “Tomato Pies” spooked me out, since it seems never to be clear what exactly that will mean. We ordered a large plain one ($10.95) along with a side salad to keep things healthy. As for beverages, Dad was thrilled that a retro tap birch beer was among their offerings. Bringing us some fresh bread with the salad, our waitress made note that they don’t serve butter. (Now what’s that all about?)
The kitchen was visible in the rear of the room, and I caught glimpses of our pie being prepared. Ours was the first of the day, and seemed to take longer than I would have expected. It arrived cut into eight slices and had a look that stopped me cold: dark tomato sauce, a strong sheen of oil, and heavier cheese and a thicker crust (about a half inch) than I had anticipated. Crisply cooked, it was one solid pizza that soon caused a lot of crunching in our booth.
Diving in, although it seemed ready to eat, I scalded the roof of my mouth on my first bite. The bottom crust was darkly charred, and each slice held together so strong and firm that a fold was both unnecessary and impossible. Things were collectively tasting so amazing that it took a while to get my senses together to decipher it all. As things progressed, I started to enjoy this pizza more and more with every bite.
Most strikingly was the rich tomato sauce which could easily be the best I have ever tasted on a pizza. It wasn’t all on top of the cheese either, thus making their “tomato pie” label a bit of a mystery. The Mozzarella was laid on heavy, but was fluffy and delicious. The crust too was a delight and the big end crusts were a crunchy treat as well.
As I mentioned earlier, there was a strong sheen of oil which I’m not sure all exuded from the cheese. It could have been a splash of olive oil, and I was tempted to ask. Regardless, it added to the luscious blend of flavor, and was not hard on the stomach like a greasy pie can sometimes be.
I am so thankful that in this ever-changing commercialized America, that places of tradition like Spirito’s continue to survive. Pizza recipes and kitchen craftsmanship like this are a national treasure, and we need a government agency to protect them! Spirito’s is a place that every pizza lover needs to visit. More than once!
P.S. For the record, none of that pie made it home with us. Dad knocked off two and I took care of six of the eight slices.
PIZZA SNOB RATING ***** Sets the Standard
Spirito’s Restaurant & Tavern
714 3rd Avenue Elizabeth, NJ 07202