My quest for the tastiest sandwiches in Baristaville continues. In Part 1, I unearthed the best of Maplewood, South Orange, Millburn and West Orange. Today I turn my focus on the Montclair area, where I discovered a couple of classic Italian standouts, a surprisingly good riff on the humble turkey and cheese, an unusual sweet and sour entry, and one wild card.
Nicolo’s Italian Bakery and Deli: I had the pleasure of lunching here with Baristanet’s intrepid Daily Editor Erika Bleiberg, who has been a regular for many years. “Once you know about it, you keep coming back. It’s kind of like a religious cult,” said Erika.
Owner Nicolo (Nick) Zecchino, along with brothers Joe and Don, run this third-generation business established by their father in 1967. Nick’s lovely daughter, Elena, was working the register.
The chicken and broccoli rabe sandwich is the most popular menu item, and it was the reason I was there. “We sell anywhere from 20-60 a day,” said Bridget, sandwich maker extraordinaire.
The cutlet is crisp and savory, and the juices from the bitter, spicy broccoli rabe soak into the terrific hero roll. It is also big enough to feed a family of four.
Everything looks good at Nicolo’s, from their justly famous breads (they supply many restaurants and other eateries) to the cheeses and hot foods. I spied a scrumptious looking frittata with peppers and I asked Bridget if customers get it for breakfast. “For breakfast, lunch, a snack; they ask for it between bread or they just eat it like that.”
A customer who was with his young child said, “I’ve been coming here forever. Legend has it that my dad was their first customer in 1967.” He smiled and added fondly, “The bread hasn’t changed.”
Rosario’s Butcher Shop: Although Baristaville has a good selection of high-quality Italian delis and grocery stores, Rosario’s in Upper Montclair is definitely in the top of the pack.
Owner Rosario Barbalace demurred when I asked him to make me the store’s most popular sandwich, the Rosario Special: prosciutto, fresh mozzarella and roasted peppers. “It’s delicious, but it’s not that unusual,” he said.
Instead, he whipped up a Mike Anthony, a combination of breaded chicken cutlet, mozzarella, bruschetta tomatoes and arugula. The sandwich was enormous. The bread was very tasty, the cutlet nicely fried and the zingy tomatoes were the ying to the creamy mozzarella’s yang. (The cheese is made in house, and is superb.)
Rosario told me the other two bestselling sandwiches are the Rocky Balboa (prosciutto, hot ham, salami and sharp provolone) and the Brooklyn Special (breaded eggplant, mozz, arugula, oil and balsamic.)
While waiting, I grilled a longtime regular customer about his favorite offerings. “The sausages are made here, and they’re the best I’ve had,” he confided, “and the meatballs are really good. This place is the real deal.” If I hadn’t been heading out on a trip I would have snapped some up for sure. I vowed to come back to try everything I missed.
Watchung Deli: Barista Liz George tipped me off to this place, and told me I had to try the Angry Dwarf, which the deli is famous for. I have to admit the menu description didn’t exactly wow me: Sausalito turkey, melted Muenster cheese, tomato, onion and mayo on a toasted Italian roll. But since I was just across the street at Rosario’s, I figured I would try it.
The Watchung Deli is run by two married couples: Gary and Maureen Kiffer and Robert and Jean Johannsen. I asked Jean what makes the Dwarf so popular. “Because it’s delicious,” she said. Why is it called The Angry Dwarf? Gary explained that a local teen invented the sandwich a few years ago. “He was a kid, and he was always angry.”
When I passed the sandwich around to my family, who were already stuffed from the Mike Anthony, a chorus of “mmm’s” ensued. There is something about the interplay of the ingredients, the way the cheese is melted but not greasy, and the mayo adding flavor and moisture without gloppiness. The Sausalito turkey provides a gentle heat. I would eat the Angry Dwarf any day of the week.
Plum on Park: Baristanet has already written about Plum here, a cozy, homey spot that serves breakfast and lunch. I was there for their signature Plum on Park Sandwich. Made with roasted pork tenderloin, balsamic poached plums, brie, honey mustard and pickled red onions grilled on a baguette, this sandwich seemed a little out of the ordinary.
Owner Natalie Colledge said she concocted it by chance just before opening the restaurant in the fall of 2010. Putting together some provisions for a family plane trip, she threw together some stuff she had in the fridge. Her family members raved about it, and she decided to include it on the menu.
“It’s our most popular item, next to the black bean, avocado, tahini and arugula on multigrain bread,” said Colledge. Some customers have called it a German version of a Cubano, with the sourness of the plums and onions marrying with the rich pork and cheese.
I call it totally unique, and very tasty.
Gina’s Bakery: Before the indignant comments start rolling in, let me acknowledge that including Gina’s in a sandwich survey is a bit of a cheat. Gina’s is a bakery, albeit a stellar one, but there is not one actual sandwich on the menu.
And yet. In addition to first-rate breads (the whole wheat walnut currant is my favorite among many standouts), pastries (the chocolate chunk brioche bread pudding is incredible), and other baked goods (like the addictive jalapeno cream cheese cornbread muffins), Gina’s also makes two types of savory, stuffed croissant: spinach and feta, and ham and cheese.
Here is my idea of a perfect Saturday in Montclair. Head to Gina’s in the early lunchtime hours, as the best stuff tends to sell out quickly. Purchase one each of the savory croissants and throw in a pain au chocolat for dessert. Order a glass of bracingly strong iced coffee. Sit outside at one of the little tables and watch the street life on Walnut; or if you’re feeling energetic, stroll a block to the Montclair Farmers Market and graze while you shop.
I’m sure there are scores of great sandwich spots in the area that I have missed. I never got around to trying Mastriano’s and Anthony’s Cheesecake Cafe in Bloomfield; Belgiovine, Marzullo’s, Alan’s Avenue or Jackie’s Grillette in Montclair; or Just Sandwiches in Glen Ridge — to name just a few that people tipped me off to. Perhaps a Part 3 is in the future?
Nicolo’s (note, they’re closed on Mondays)
252 Park Street
117 Watchung Avenue
14 Park St.
110 Walnut Street