A Guy, A Girl, and Two Pizza Places

Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, NY

Alright, Frankie…

The saying goes that even bad pizza is pretty good. I mostly agree with that statement, unless we’re talking about Papa John’s, which is a travesty. Growing up in New Jersey I’ve been spoiled with exceptionally above average pies. Something about the water and some kind of aquifer that makes for extra special crust or something. Plus add in a ton of Italian Americans and you’re in business.

New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut are pizza heaven. And as a kid growing up in Clinton Township you simply couldn’t go wrong with a slice from Pizza Como (RIP), DiMola’s or Natale’s. I’ve been all over this crazy country, and nothing tastes better than a tri-state pie (sorry Philly and Chicago). Although my pizza palate has gotten a little more refined as of late, there are few things in this world more satisfying than the perfect slice.

See my write-ups on Luca’s Ristorante in Somerset, NJ and Fatto Americano in New Brunswick, NJ.

It just so happens that over the past month my taste buds have been blessed by some of the most iconic pizza on the East Coast. After recording my very first podcast sesh with the gents from Not A Foodie Show and a delightful lunch at the one Michelin star Oxomoco in Greenpoint, Brooklyn (CougEats Blog Post), I figured I couldn’t leave BK without grabbing a slice from the iconic Paulie Gee’s for dessert because I’m a fat piece of crap and it was basically on the way back to my car. I had no excuse, plus I don’t make it out to Greenpoint very often (ever).

I’m not especially up to date with NYC pizza trends, but I had recently listened to an episode of Here’s the Thing featuring Debra of eatquestnyc who mentioned that she thought Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop was the best slice in the city. Spoiler alert: it lived up to the hype.

A greasy, cheesy masterpiece with pepperoni cups crisped to perfection and a firm crust that successfully captured any grease pockets and held up well to the classic fold. I threw on some hot pepper flakes, folded it, and was on my way. Without a doubt one of the top five best slices I’ve ever eaten.

Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop
110 Franklin St, Brooklyn, NY 11222
(347) 987-3747
Website: https://pauliegee.com/slice-shop/
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/pauliegees_sliceshop
Foursquare: https://foursquare.com/v/paulie-gees-slice-shop/57040eae498ef7367c74b057

Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana in New Haven, CT

I have a confession to make. I’ve (regrettably) become addicted to Barstool Pizza Reviews in addition to being a fan of Section 10, Barstool’s Red Sox podcast. Yes, I’m trash. Okay. Now we have that out of the way.

I’ve always heard that Connecticut and New Haven in particular were a special kind of coal fired pizza utopia. I thought: How could this be? Connecticut is terrible. It’s like a much much worse version of New Jersey. But, El Presidente recently spent some time reviewing a bunch of spots there and most received some outlandishly high ratings. One bite everybody knows the rules.

Stephanie and I had a wedding on the calendar in Milford, CT over Memorial Day Weekend and figured this would be as good a time as any to scope out some of these famous (a)pizzerias. It seemed like Sally’s Apizza, Modern Apizza, Roseland Apizza, and the original Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana were the spots, but unfortunately, most were closed on Memorial Day. Luckily for us, Frank Pepe’s was very much open.

Home to the original white clam pie, Frank Pepe’s is a New Haven pizza institution. Many have claimed it to be the best clam pie in the country and maybe…the world. I wouldn’t go that far, but these were still some damn good pies.

As it was our first time there, we didn’t stray too far from the classics. We got a twelve inch original tomato pie and the famous white clam pie, forgoing bacon to keep it as authentic as possible. Something I would normally never do. The crust is the star here. Crispy, crunchy and blackened, it was structurally perfect. The pies themselves were sublime, though they didn’t necessarily reach “best pizza of our lives” levels. Maybe we should have opted for the bacon.

We ended up taking about six slices home and honestly, we kind of liked them even better after re-heating in the oven. The clams were a little crispier, which is how I tend to like them. The original tomato with some added red pepper flakes and hot honey and the white clam smothered in red pepper flakes ascended them to a higher plane of pizza existence.

Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana
157 Wooster St, New Haven, CT 06511
(203) 865-5762
Website: https://pepespizzeria.com/new-haven/
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/frankpepepizza
Foursquare: https://foursquare.com/v/frank-pepe-pizzeria-napoletana/4afe0a99f964a520562d22e3

Yeah, there’s definitely some really bad pizza out there, but I feel like junk food pizza, good pizza, and artisan pizza maybe need to be put into their own categories. Hell, even a Pizza Hut Stuffed Crust Pizza scratches that junk food itch when I feel like slumming it. The point is: Pizza is love. Pizza is life. And I’ll share a pie with you any day. Thanks for comin’ out.

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A Salted Lime, a Podcast, and a Michelin Star

Strategically cropped photo of Coug himself. (Photo Credit: Not A Foodie Show)

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know it’s been awhile. I’m of the mindset that writing as a hobby should never feel like a chore and I simply haven’t been as motivated to compose long form content for all you loyal readers as of late. Maybe it’s post-20s despondence setting in, maybe I’ve just been busy with my business, or maybe I simply haven’t been going out to eat as much. I’m not made of money! Plus, when I do feel some food blog motivation, I’ve been focusing more on short form Instagram content than here on WordPress. I’m gonna let you in on an industry secret. Most of the Instagram and Facebook content you see from dear old Coug was probably taken during a meal I ate weeks, months, or sometimes even years prior. It’s simply too time consuming to do it on the fly most of the time, especially while I’m at dinner. You have your filters and your editing and your watermarks so jerks don’t jack my shit and then you have to invent some clever copy and do your account tagging and your hashtagging and frankly I’m out of breath just typing all that.

That being said, I have an extra special post for you all. We have a couple quick hits: a Central Jersey recommendation, a write-up about my very first podcast guest spot, and my first Michelin star experience. I was going to also tie-in my recent visits to two iconic pizzerias, but this post ended up getting away from me. So there’s a teaser for next time!

Salted Lime, Somerville, NJ

Salted Lime in Somerville, NJ (Photo Credit: Salted Lime Bar & Kitchen)

By golly, the folks at Mark Daniel Hospitality have done it again. You may know them from their widely acclaimed Central Jersey restaurants Uproot in Warren, NJ and INC Restaurant in New Brunswick, NJ. Despite INC being a New Brunswick favorite, a frequent recommendation to area newcomers, and one of my preferred watering holes to the frequency that I actually had a cocktail named for me once upon a time (El Coug: El Dorado 8 year, Demerera sugar, coffee pecan bitters, orange peel), I’ve never written about them. Why, you ask? They don’t need the press. Everyone loves them. Oh, and I somehow still don’t have a plaque above the bar stool to the left of the pillar.

They’ve now hit back to back to back home runs with Salted Lime Bar & Kitchen, a feat typically reserved for your Mike Trouts or your Christian Yelichs or your Bartolo Colons. Located in the heart of downtown Somerville, NJ, Salted Lime is a modern twist on Latin American staples with a menu of delightful small plates and some of the best damn house margaritas you’ll ever drink. I talk a lot about New Brunswick, as it not only has been my home for the past eight years, but because I believe it still has one of the most underrated dining scenes in the state. It’s time to start taking a look at its little sibling to the west. With staples like Tapastre and Verve, Somerville has always been a low-key sneaky dining destination, but with recent additions like Salted Lime and Project P.U.B., a revitalized Main Street buzzing with activity, a bevy of new housing options, and rumors of the return of one-seat rides to Penn Station on the Raritan Valley Line, it gets a look from me almost as often as New Brunswick.

Salted Lime finally opened in late 2018 after a few delays, but it was worth the wait. Helmed by Executive Chef Renner Burgos, a native of El Salvador, and Director of Operations & Hospitality Daniel McGill, a varied and creative seasonal menu paired with some boozy, inspired cocktail creations and an earthy, cantina-inspired interior packs the dining room and bar most nights of the week and the outdoor patio, now open for the season, as soon as it opens its umbrellas. Their tacos, arepas, and mezcal cocktails got me in the door, but their happy hour, daily specials, and elote-inspired corn dogs(!) have me coming back again and again.

Salted Lime Bar & Kitchen
46 E Main St, Somerville, NJ
(908) 864-4403
Website: http://saltedlimerestaurant.com/
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/salted_lime_restaurant/
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/saltedlimerestaurant
Foursquare: https://foursquare.com/v/salted-lime-bar–kitchen/5be77db0a2a6ce002cca8ab6

Not A Foodie Show & A Michelin Star

For someone with such a perfect face for radio coupled with the ability to drone endlessly about restaurants you’ll probably never go to, I’m surprised it took me this long to stumble my way onto a podcast. A big thanks to Sam Doyle, Wine Consultant at Wine Library, who you may know as The Bearded Wine Guy on Facebook or @Sammoman on Twitter & Instagram, for making the introduction. Sam and podcast co-creator Michael Miranti both worked at the Corkbuzz wine bar back in the day, where Sam no doubt regaled him with tales of Gewürztraminers and Barolos whilst stroking his beard.

Last week I met up with Tom Miale & Michael Miranti, co-creators of Not A Foodie Show, at BK Media Studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn to talk about a range of Central Jersey gems worth braving NJ Transit for, pork roll vs. Taylor Ham, and a few of my favorite cocktails. You can listen to my episode in full above or on their website. My segment, which also aired on Radio Rampa 620AM NYC this past Saturday, begins around the 20 minute mark.

After a brief intro into my motivation behind CougEats, I did my very best to mention as many of my favorite deserving locations as I could squeeze into a 20 minute segment, but I still managed to leave a few out (my apologies to Destination Dogs, Clydz, Luca’s Ristorante, and Salt Seafood & Oyster Bar specifically). I also referred to the dish at Heirloom Kitchen as a “peanut, potato & leek soup” when I believe it was actually a cold corn chowder with crème fraîche. (Sorry, Dave! Though, I’m pretty sure that dish hasn’t been on the menu since last fall.)

Below, I’ve included a list of all the restaurants mentioned during my show segment:

After recording, Tom & Mike brought me to Oxomoco for lunch. Located almost directly across the street from the studio, this modern, relaxed, one Michelin star Mexican cantina from Justin Bazdarich was bright and airy, with stark white walls, lush greenery, and sunlight spilling in from all directions. A cozy patio out front invites you in to sample an adventurous menu and a generous selection of mezcal and tequila inside.

We shared a few plates between the three of us, but my attention was drawn to the “Beef Tartare Tostada” with grasshopper mayo, avocado, arbol peanut, watercress, and yes…grasshoppers. I hate to admit this was my first time trying grasshopper, which I’ve been meaning to try and was delighted to find offered a delicious, salty crunch and a taste sensation similar to anchovy paste. I followed that up with a succulent “Carnitas Cemita” with black bean, quesillo, chipotle, and papalo, which I quickly demolished along with a “Toronjada” (grapefruit, pet-nat rosé) and at least one “El Chihuahua” (tequila, grapefruit, tajin-salt rim). My experience was nothing short of espectacular. Bravo, Chef.

Oxomoco
128 Greenpoint Ave, Brooklyn, NY
(646) 688-4180
Website: https://www.oxomoconyc.com/
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/_oxomoco_/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/oxomoco/
Foursquare: https://foursquare.com/v/oxomoco/5ae8ed8eb3c961002b3360da

I had a blast recording Not A Foodie Show with Tom & Mike, and look forward to coming back on to talk more Jersey gems, greasy diners, and to discuss my Central Jersey thesis at length. Cheers and a huge thanks to everyone who tuned in last Saturday to listen live to the show’s simulcast on a Polish AM radio station. These guys are passionate, knowledgeable, and just a little too similar to myself. Don’t hold that against them, though. Give em a follow why don’t ya?

Not A Foodie Show
Website: http://www.notafoodie.com/
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/notafoodieshow/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/notafoodieshow
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/notafoodiecom/

Tom Miale
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/tmiale/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/tmiale

Michael Miranti
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/mikemiranti/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/MikeMiranti

A NYE to Remember: Scott Anderson’s Magnum Opus

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elements in Princeton, NJ

There’s a balance I struggle with when I go out to eat, especially to a particularly memorable meal. Documenting the meal with photos and occasionally with tasting and wine notes can be exhausting. There’s no doubt it takes away from the overall enjoyment of the experience. In the back of my mind I know I’ll most likely want to write about it at a later date, but at the same time I want the full, uninterrupted dining affair. This is what I struggled with this past New Year’s Eve while enjoying the best meal of my life (thus far).

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elements in Princeton, NJ

Stephanie and I have been compiling a dining bucket list, trying to check one or two off per year. Over the last two years we’ve made it to Restaurant Latour at Crystal Spings in Hamburg, NJ and Heirloom Kitchen in Old Bridge, NJ but the one right in our backyard loomed large. We decided to finally pull the trigger and made a reservation for New Year’s Eve at elements in Princeton, NJ. Having heard nothing but stellar reviews, we did it up big at arguably the best restaurant in the state. Chef’s Grand Tasting Menu and Premium Wine Pairing dressed in our Sunday best.

As this was such a spectacularly special occasion, aside from photos of the menu and individual courses, I decided to prioritize the experience over documentation. Combined with the fact that this dinner was now almost two months ago (sorry y’all, my life is busy now), I will not be providing detailed tasting notes or a full review. Instead I will simply state that each of the 12+ courses at elements was the most delicious, perfectly balanced, marvelously succulent bite of that particular food I’ve ever eaten up until this point in my life. All the way down to the bread and butter. Paired with a number of elegant wine selections (of which I have zero notes on, sorry again), this dinner transcended time and space into a higher plane of existence.

I will let the photos speak for themselves.

Note: I’m not 100% sure about the crispy potatoes. I believe they may have come as part of the ribeye course. 

I understand why the Michelin Guide limits their ratings to major cities in the United States. The country is simply too large for inspectors to visit restaurants in every corner of every state, but maybe it’s time for some small changes to the system. There’s no doubt in my mind that Chef Scott Anderson’s magnum opus would have at least one Michelin Star were it located in New York City, Chicago, or San Francisco rather than Princeton, NJ.

I’ve always described an incredible meal as the highest form of art, enveloping the senses, and evoking long lost memories, smells, and tastes. Dinner at elements was no exception. It was a pleasure and an honor to have experienced Scott Anderson’s art. I may not be back for some time, but I assure you I will be back. If you consider a great meal as an transcendent experience rather than mere sustenance, I urge you to visit elements, yes even if it means traveling to New Jersey.

 

A Top Chef & A View

First and foremost let me apologize to all my dedicated CougEats fans for not putting out a new blog post in a few months. I’ve come to the realization that a lot of you may think that food writing is my full-time gig. Not the case. I own and operate a digital marketing consulting firm (website in the works), which after two years of intense business development has taken off and is keeping me very busy, but I will do my best to put out long form content more often! That being said, there is no better time to spotlight the incredible 31st birthday dinner I enjoyed at Heirloom Kitchen, a farm-to-table restaurant, cooking school, and supper club in Old Bridge, NJ.

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Chef David Viana (Photo Credit: Heirloom Kitchen)

Top Chef’s sixteenth season kicks off Thursday, December 6th and the preeminent food competition series has featured some culinary heavyweights throughout the years. You can add Chef David Viana to that list. Partner and Executive Chef at Heirloom Kitchen, the 2018 James Beard Award nominee has worked with Bobby Flay, Anthony Bucco, and Michael White, as well as at the iconic Eleven Madison Park, Two Star Michelin restaurant Villa Joya in Portugal, and as the Executive Chef at The Kitchen at Grove Station.

While I don’t know Viana personally, I did get to know his brother Steven during my many visits to INC Restaurant up the road in New Brunswick. A talented mixologist and bar manager, Steve has bent my ear and poured me many a drink over the years. Knowing my love for elevated cuisine in the Central Jersey area, he suggested I check out his brother’s acclaimed restaurant in Old Bridge. Steve has since moved on and now works with his brother at Heirloom Kitchen.

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Heirloom Kitchen

After months on my must try list, I finally got to sit down down at the back chef’s counter with my lovely girlfriend Stephanie for my 31st birthday this past September. And what an experience it was. I even brought my father’s 2014 Vigneto di Dionigi Sierra Foothills Brunello that I’ve been saving for just the right occasion.

The interior is spectacular, awash in white and wood with a fully open kitchen. It’s upscale without being pretentious and designed to be boisterous and bubbly without being obnoxiously loud. The chef’s counter is a must, as it allows you to watch each dish as it’s prepared, plus you may even learn a thing or two to bring home with you.

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2014 Vigneto di Dionigi Sierra Foothills Brunello from acclaimed winemaker Dennis Healey

I was blown away by the complexity of the menu and coordinated with my partner in crime so we could try as much of it as humanly possible. Unfortunately their menu changes often, and most of these items are no longer available. Regardless, you will not leave disappointed.

The journey began with a simple amuse bouche and the Milk Buns with XO Butter. When bread and butter are well worth the $7 price tag, you know something masterful is happening behind the scenes. We followed our first courses with a true standout and the one item that jumped out as a must try as soon as I saw it: Chilled Elote Soup with shrimp, corn, poblano crema, and ancho chili oil. Poured table side, this explosion of creamy corn flavor confused and delighted with just enough heat on the back end to pack a satisfying punch. The bold flavors and fresh ingredients left an impressive mark on my taste buds. Even in the winter I rarely order soup of any kind, but this will go down as one of the best. Paired with the Octopus with tamarind, forbidden black rice, pine nuts, and pineapple nouc cham (which I had to look up…it’s a Vietnamese fish dipping sauce), Heirloom was off to a strong start.

Not only was the food and ambiance memorable, but the service was at a level that more restaurants should aspire to. When my Duck Breast with chermoula eggplant, mint, fig, and harissa red wine reduction was backed up, the kitchen sent out a plate of their Lamb Chops with swiss chard, worcestershire, roasted carrots, and sweet potato puree, which I had been torn on in the first place, so I ended up with the best of both worlds. Our friendly, convivial, extremely knowledgeable waiter handled the entire meal expertly, chatting with us, explaining each and every dish, and apologizing for any delay. Chef Viana came over a few times to introduce himself and Steve chatted with us when he had a chance. We felt like honored guests in someone’s home. “Eat our sweet meats, drink our wine,” as Roger Sterling would say.

In addition to the lamb and duck breast, both of which were gorgeously plated and perfectly succulent, we ordered a side of the sweet cornbread with pickled Hauser Hill vegetables and corn butter that sounded too good to resist but that I regretfully don’t have a photo of.

This meal read like a great novel. It confused, delighted, and unfolded over several hours. Surprises around every turn. I can confidently say that this was one of the best meals I’ve eaten in New Jersey and that includes meals at Restaurant Latour at Crystal Springs, Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen, and The Frog & the Peach. My only regret was that I didn’t make it here sooner.

Chef Viana and Founder, Partner & General Manager Nelly Robinson have created a truly unique experience in an unassuming strip mall in Old Bridge, NJ and you know I’ll be glued to Bravo at 10 PM every Thursday rooting Viana on. I can’t wait to see what he puts in front of Padma, Tommy C, and company.

Those looking for an otherworldly culinary experience in Central NJ, Heirloom Kitchen is a destination not to be missed.

Chuck Friedel Catering Co.

How do you measure a man’s character? Is he a dedicated father? A loving husband? A provider? Can he grow a magnificent beard? How skillfully can he grill and smoke meat?

FriedelParty2018-306If you’ve ever been in the presence of Chuck Friedel you can check off the majority of those boxes. He’s a loving husband and father, a dedicated football coach, and sports some awe-inspiring and well-kempt facial hair. But the crux of the matter here is: Are his ribs tender, juicy, and moist? Does the meat fall off the bone?

If you’ve spent any time around me you probably know about Baraday. I like to refer to it not as a weekend of competition, binge drinking,  debauchery, and male bonding, but as our annual fraternity of friendship. Baraday is a way for fifteen close friends to stay in touch over the course of nearly a decade and a half.

Baraday XIV was different than the past several few, which were almost exclusively held in upstate New York or at Baradise itself. The fourteenth Baraday was a return to Hunterdon County, and more importantly, a return to our roots. At a loss for a proper venue, the Vaynerchuks stepped in and allowed us to test out their unfinished man cave for the weekend. With this came a gorgeous property, relaxing pool, and the perfect grilling setup. And with no funds dedicated to an AirBNB, we had the ability to splurge. We had the ability to treat ourselves after a night or two of sleeping in cars or on unfinished concrete floors.

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The Well Fed BaraBoys

Cooking and grilling duties typically fall to the hungriest few, those confident enough in their abilities to cook a variety of meats (and even some veggies) for fifteen dudes. Mix in a few Pop Tarts and Zebra Cakes for good measure and you’ve got yourself some sustenance. Not this year. This Baraday we dined like civilized men. This year….Baraday was catered.

In a twist straight out of the movie Saw, this Baraday we opted to appoint a Game Master, who would be in charge of all logistics, team activities, food, alcohol, and general mayhem. That role fell to Justin Friedel, who put us through a gauntlet of events which for some reason included both an egg hunt and an egg drop. Now that I think of it, there were a suspiciously high number of egg-related events. Justin’s deep-rooted psychological issues aside, he entrusted our tummies to his brother Chuck, who surprisingly fed us zero eggs. Make of that what you will.

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Chuck and his special helper Jimmy

With several grills and a smoker at his disposal, Chuck enlisted the assistance of his buddy Jimmy, who from what I saw did a lot of leaning, general wisecracking, and just a touch of mise en place. Either way, our Game Master did not let us down. Chuck knows his meats. Beginning at 12:30 PM, he laid out an impressive menu, with a new course at the ready every hour until 7:30 PM. The cavalcade of calories even included some veggies.

Starting off with hamburger sliders and hot dogs, a staple at any BBQ, Chuck followed with 20FriedelParty2018-168 pounds of wings, pulled pork sliders, chicken quesadillas, steak and shrimp kebabs, bacon wrapped pork loin, seven racks of perfectly smoked ribs, potatoes, corn on the cob, and both macaroni and potato salad. All painstakingly prepared by Chuck’s own hands throughout the course of the day.

Although I regrettably did not get to try every course, of what I did try, the pulled pork sliders, chicken quesadillas, steak and shrimp kebabs, and ribs were the highlights. Particularly the ribs, which were smoked for almost the entire day, resulting in fall-off-the-bone tenderness only a mother could provide. The glaze, which was brown sugar-based, brought just the right amount of sweetness, just like Chuck himself.

All jokes aside, Chuck’s food service was seriously impressive and I’m not just saying that because Baraday food typically consists of burgers, hot dogs, and Zebra Cakes. The level of care and dedication he put into the preparation was evident right off the bat and the level of quality and attention to detail only increased as the day went on.

I don’t know if he has any plans to start a catering service, but with a beard so glorious and meat so tender, I would trust this man with not only my ribs, but frankly, my life.

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