Wood Stack Pizza Kitchen: top-notch pizza and cocktails in Pine Brook, NJ

Woodstack pizza pine brook-8

A short ten years ago, the only thought of Neapolitan-style pizza in NJ was the memory of Una Pizza Napoletana in Point Pleasant Beach, owned and operated by the incredible pizzaiola Anthony Mangieri, which had a run of a few years, and probably caused much confusion for the locals and bennies--"What, no slices? I have to order a whole pie? Why is it so small? Why is it moist? It's burned." It closed, and Mangieri moved his place to NYC to great acclaim. Then he moved to San Francisco, for more great acclaim.

But now, in our current world of open-mindedness and tolerance to ideas that differ from our own and our ability to have our worldviews and deeply rooted biases challenged, Neapolitan-style pizza can be all over our state, and even in some other states, if you can believe that. Many of these places do a very good job. Few combine excellent Neapolitan-style pizza with a full bar. And even fewer have a full bar and actually care about the booze they're offering. Wood Stack Pizza, in Pine Brook, is, indeed, exceptional in this regard, and others.

Wood Stack Pizza Pine Brook
Here's a tip: if they offer you bread, take it. They're baking their own bread here, as good pizzaiolo do, and it's excellent stuff. Served with softened butter sprinkled with coarse sea salt (they do things right here, I'm tellin' ya that much).

Their liquor shelves are well-stocked, and even have some stuff that I've never come across. The cocktail list is expansive, and there's a separate section for margarita-type drinks (tequila, and mezcal), presumably because they knew I'd be coming.  The gin, rum, whiskey, and tequila cocktails far outnumber the vodka drinks, thankfully. Good management is in place, it's clear, because the bartenders are jiggering their cocktails. Cocktails are all about proportions, and unless you're a very exceptional bartender, not jiggering can lead to unbalanced drinks. I prefer to see jigger use at a bar. It's a sign of professionalism and an attention to detail. Even I, I, use jiggers when making cocktails at home. Of course, I can free-pour pretty well, but why bother.

Woodstack pizza pine brook
Woodstack pizza pine brook
Woodstack pizza pine brook

The tap beers are all local, and seem to rotate pretty regularly. All from NJ as far as I can remember. All sorts of great beer is being produced in NJ, and you should start drinking it and supporting your local brewers. Otherwise those kids who make the beer are going to have to do the other things they'd be doing, like making awful music. Please drink their beer so I don't have to hear their awful music. 

Wood Stack does have some mass-produced swill in bottles, for the savages among us.

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Social Still: food and spirits in Bethlehem, PA

Social still bethlehem-4

The ol' restaurant-in-an-old-bank trick.  They're popping up everywhere. Bethlehem, PA, boasts at least two (Mint, is another, which is located in a 60s-style bank, a decidedly different vibe than the turn-of-the-last-century banks you typically see occupied by restaurants).

Social Still ups the game by not being not only a restaurant, but also a distillery. They're making gin, whiskey, vodka, rum, and not tequila. They're putting their spirits in some excellent cocktails, and on top of that, putting out some great, fun food.

Social still bethlehem
Social still bethlehem

Those cocktails include preferable ingredients like house-made bitters and fresh fruit juices. Some standouts were "The Herbalist" (House infused rosemary, thyme, and cucumber gin, lime, simple) and "The Jake" (rye, bitter orange liqueur, orange flower water, bitters, rye soaked cherries, pineapple). These cocktails may or may not be pictured here.

The menu tends to read toward the fun side of the spectrum, but I got the impression the team in the kitchen can indeed cook at a level beyond your expectations.

Social still bethlehem-8

We had a simple chopped salad, with marinated tomatoes, pickled red onion, and crispy chickpeas, and a chèvre vinaigrette. Notice I didn't say "tomatoes, onions, chicks peas, vinaigrette." They're doing things right here.

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Eating in Croatia: Oysters at Kapetanova kuca in Mali Ston

Kapetanova kuca mali ston oysters-9

When you're driving from Split to Dubronvik--and you should be driving from Split to Dubrovnik, and not sitting on a bus, or, not visiting Dubrovnik--you'll pass by a little town on a peninsula called Mali Ston. 

Mali Ston and Ston are well worth a stop. There's an incredible wall built some 500-600 year ago, which connects Mali Ston and Ston. And there are also oyster and salt beds. And where there are oyster beds, there are oysters. And where there are oysters, there's me with a glass of white wine.

Kapetanova kuca mali ston oysters-12Where the oysters are born

Mali Ston is a tiny little town situated right on the water. Incredibly clean and pure water. That's where the oysters grow. There are two restaurants right next to each other: Bota Sare, and Kapetanova kuca. We chose the latter, as Bota Sare has restaurants in both Split and Dubrovnik, two towns we'd be spending time in. And, the owner of the lovely Dominus Little Palace in Dubrovnik advised that Kapetanova has a "the best" black rice dish.

Once we got to town, there's a tiny little road took us around what appeared to be the remnants of a castle (and I wasn't sure if I was even supposed to be driving there) and dropped us off right in front of the restaurant. This was my first day on the road and I wasn't sure where to park. But cars seemed to be just sort of parked next to the water. So that's what I did. When we arrived at about 2 pm, the place was jumpin'. There's a very spacious outdoor patio that seats about 60 people. We grabbed a table and got right into it.

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Eating in Croatia: Restaurant Dubrovnik in Dubronvik

Dubrovnik wall-2

Fine dining is something we often steer clear of when traveling. We made an exception when we booked Restaurant Dubrovnik, and I'm very glad we did.

Restaurant Dubrovnik has a stunning setting on a rooftop in the old city. Fully retractable walls and roof shelter you in the event of poor weather, poor weather being a thing that you likely won't see in Dubrovnik between April and, perhaps, April.

Restaurant dubrovnik croatia-5

Restaurant dubrovnik croatia-3
Restaurant dubrovnik croatia-3

We ordered a bottle of local red wine, with the help of the very informative server. I've said it before, and it bears repeating. The servers in Croatia on a whole were very knowledgeable of their local wine. Which helped me immensely, since Croatian wines rarely get beyond the Croatian border, and I've never had one.

An amuse-bouche was sent out. I'd be lying if I told you anything about this dish. I simply don't remember, but I'm sure it was a perfect way to start the meal. 

Restaurant dubrovnik croatia-4

My memory gets much more clear from the appetizer on. We started with the tuna and octopus tartare. I assume the octopus was cooked (not really tartare). This was a great dish with pleasant bursts of salt and ocean, and a variety of textures. Good stuff right here.

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Eating in Croatia: Uje Oil Bar in Split

Uje oil bar split croatia-7

That first meal while traveling can go any number of ways, many of them bad. We're typically tired, bleary-eyed, confused, stinky, lost, and woefully unprepared with a plan for lunch when we arrive the first day.

The first day of this trip to Croatia in Split was no different.

Diocletian palace basement khaleesi
Diocletian palace basement khaleesi

After checking out where Khaleesi kept her dragons (the basement of Diocletian's Palace), we took in a few hours of sun and local beer on the riva. I loved the juxtaposition of the gorgeous, bright, wide-open riva, and the inside of the Palace walls, where narrow and seemingly endless alleys snake through the old city.

Speaking of Game of Thrones, I have to admit, a lot of the appeal of visiting Croatia came from seeing the various towns featured in Game of Thrones. Dubrovnik in particular was as awe-inspiring as it looks on the show, even with the show's CGI and post-production making it look even cooler. 

Back to food.

Some quick research led us to Uje Oil Bar. After checking out the posted menu, and seeing the lovely outdoor seating, we knew we were in the right place. It's nestled just far enough from the main squares that you're not being trampled by hoards of tourists with selfie-sticks. My God, people walk around all day with their cell phone 2 feet from their faces, taking pictures of themselves. When did this become "normal?" People of earth: you are ugly, your photos are awful, and no one wants to see them.

 

Uje oil bar split croatia-4

This was our first time ordering a Croatian wine. I asked the waiter if he could assist in some descriptions. He hesitated, and I figured he'd just make up some stuff that sounded good. Well, he asked what type of wine we typically like, and then suggested four, with lengthy descriptions of the flavor profiles, the grape, where they are grown, who made them, and more info than I needed quite frankly. We found most servers were well-versed in the local wines.

Indeed we found most servers were just fantastic all around. English is very widely spoken. In fact I was a little dismayed that there weren't more challenges with communication. That's one of the fun aspects of traveling to other countries: trying to figure it all out. In Croatia, everyone's English is quite good...aside from the cops at the police station, with whom I spoke for an hour. But that's another story.

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Eating in Croatia: Alviz in Hvar

Hvar croatia-2

It didn't occur to me that I might be enjoying both pizza and cevapi in a single meal, but that's exactly what happened in Hvar, the gorgeous town on the island of the same name in Croatia.

The owner of the lovely Villa Nora suggested Alviz for dinner. "It has the best cevapi in Hvar...Bosnian grilled meat," she advised. Who am I to argue. Off we went.

Alviz is situated by the bus depot next to a parking lot. Not a sexy location by any means, and most people would probably prefer eating at one of the many restaurants around the harbor. Those people don't know what they're missing. What Alviz lacks in views, it makes up for in every other way.

Alviz hvar croatia

There's a large partially open-air garden terrace in the back of the restaurant, from which you'll get a view of the wood-burning grill. Start with a liter of stupidly inexpensive local red wine from the island.

We weren't expecting much from pizza in Croatia in general, but each time we had it, it was quite impressive. This version had spicy salami and hot vinegar peppers. I don't know what type of oven they are using to cook the pies, but the crust was crisp and alive. Not dry and lifeless, which is often the case. While Croatia isn't necessarily a pizza-making culture, the pizzas are excellent no doubt due to the quality of the ingredients. The breads in Croatia overall were very good.

Alviz hvar croatia-3
Alviz hvar croatia-3

The cevapi was the best we had during our entire trip. It's a simple dish of grilled beef and perhaps lamb. Served with the roasted red pepper sauce called ajvar--a sweet, smoky, fruity condiment--and raw onions. This dish is going into rotation around my house as soon as I figure out how to make it.

The french fries, also, excellent.

Hvar croatia

Hvar is a sleepy town well worth consideration. Well, it's sleepy a bit off season. I'd definitely avoid it in the hot summer months, especially when a thing called Yacht Week occurs, and the town is no doubt filled with loud, obnoxious, drunk people dancing and doing shots on rented boats. I prefer it when I'm the only loud, obnoxious drunk person around.

Alviz : Dolac 2, 21450, Hvar, Croatia  


Dry-aged cheesesteak sandwich: you heard me

Dry-aged steak-5

You heard me, you people.

Every time I walk away from Westwood Prime Meats, I take with me some additional knowledge and appreciation for a part of the animal I likely never knew existed.

During this conversation with butcher extraordinaire Sal, the subject of the piece of meat that was on the butcher block came up. The meat on that block was a huge piece of various muscles and fat from a dry-aged rib section. Stuff that never makes it to your average butcher or supermarket.

Sal figured he'd give me a nugget of beef that was tucked within, so I could savor that funky, crazy flavor, and he proceeded to tear apart this enormous mass of flesh. Out came this unassuming little piece of beef.

Dry-aged steak

Here's where this piece of meat lives, if memory serves. Photo courtesy of Pasquale DeSalvo.

 

He told me that he'd advise using it like London Broil. "It's not about the texture, it's about the flavor." Indeed this wouldn't be the most tender piece of meat from the steer, but it was sure to be flavorful, what with all of that dry-aging that's going on here.

Dry-aged steak-3
Dry-aged steak-3

We had plenty of food that night, since I had picked up a beautiful dry-aged t-bone. So I sat around for a few days, wondering what I could do with this piece of meat. It occurred to me that it might make for a very good cheesesteak. A dry-aged cheesestak. And you know what? I was right.

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Tang Maru: Korean food in Palisades Park, NJ

Tang maru palisades park

When Chef Bobby Cho of Kimchi Smoke tells you to go to a restaurant called Tang Maru in a town called Palisades Park and order the pork neck soup, you wait 2 years and then do just what he says.

This dude isn't messing around. Not only does he know his BBQ, but he knows his pork neck soup.

Tang Maru is a pleasant, bright restaurant, with friendly service and a big connected parking lot, in an area near saturated with Korean restaurants. Since I have so little experience with Korean food, I can't say it sticks out from the pack, but damn if it isn't fantastic. And pretty cheap.

Barley tea hits the table, and then out come the banchan. I was very pleased to see whole fried fish in the assortment. The wife, however, wasn't as pleased. So I ate two. Fleshy, moist, fried fish. Guts and all as far as I could tell. But being gutless, I avoided the really flavorful parts and went to town on the regular bits.

Also included were spicy squid (I think), white radish kimchi, cabbage kimchi, and a salad. At that point, I'm pretty much full. But moments later the cauldrons come out of the kitchen.

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Joyce Chinese Cuisine in River Edge: still on track

Don't believe the naysayers.

I've been hearing that Joyce Chinese Cuisine is slipping. That's it no longer good. That something has changed for the worse. Ignore all of those wrong people. I'll be the judge of "good" thank you very much.

Indeed, everything seems fine at this Sichuan restaurant in River Edge, NJ. In fact, on a recent trip, I had one of the best dishes of this year.

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I wanted some Sichuan comfort food, and for me, fried fish is comforting. I ordered the Fried Spicy & Aromatic Fish, which hit the spot.  Tender pieces of fried fish, chili oil, chili peppers, and a load of Sichuan peppercorn. Classic Sichuan flavors here. "Boy, this has a spicy kick" I thought. I had no idea what I was in for next.

Tripe has been entering my face whenever I see it, especially following a recent trip to Tuscany, where I ate tripe as much as possible. So when I saw Tripe w/ Long Pepper and Peppercorn on the menu, well you know I just had to check it out. "You like hot?" the server asked. "Yes, of course," I confidently replied. I'm no rube, after all.

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Best Dishes: of 2016

Another year, another list. Who doesn't love a list?

I was very fortunate to have eaten some amazing food this year. Some dishes were indeed in NJ. Some were pretty close to NJ. Some were not very close to NJ. The one thing they all have in common is that made my eyes light up with joy for one reason or another.

Dishes can get my attention and fill me with glee for many reasons. They can be simple but executed flawlessly. They can be intricate affairs that leave me wondering what the hell is going on. And they can be something that I've simply never experienced. If there's one thing I love, it's eating something completely new to me.

Here are some of the bet dishes that I ate in 2016. And please, no arguing, these are the correct answers. They were all exceptional dishes.

 

Squid Ink Pasta with Guanciale and Squid
Jockey Hollow : Morristown, NJ

Jockey hollow pasta

I really can't get enough of this squid ink pasta, guanciale, and calamari dish at Jockey Hollow in Morristown, NJ. It is, without a doubt, one of the best pastas dishes, and best dishes, I've ever had.  A symphony of flavors and textures and perfectly executed. The whole dang restaurant is great.

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