Rita & Joeâ€™s New Chef adds Hip to the Menu
Seasonings are Key to Great Flavors
By Sally Deering
Nestled in Jersey Cityâ€™s Marion Section, west of Journal Square, Rita & Joeâ€™s Italian Restaurant has been serving customers since 1985 when owners Rita and Joe Pane turned a â€œbeer and shotsâ€ bar into a popular neighborhood eatery
Fast forward to 2015. Rita & Joeâ€™s celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, but instead of relying on the old standbys, Isabel â€œIzzyâ€ Pane (Ritaâ€™s daughter-in-law) has made some changes to keep up with the changing times. She brought on Chef Stephen McCall, a 1999 graduate of the New York Restaurant School who, along with Izzy, has revamped Rita & Joeâ€™s menu with a contemporary take on tradition. Ritaâ€™s signature dishes like Eggplant and Chicken Parmigiana are still offered, but Chef Stephen has created some new dishes flavored with carefully chosen seasonings and using all fresh ingredients. You wonâ€™t find store-bought pastas at this restaurant; everything is made fresh and to order.â€œOur big change is weâ€™re focusing on fresh made pastas, fresh ingredients, and more up-to-date cooking techniques so we can cater to a wider variety of people,â€ Chef Stephen says. â€œIâ€™m focusing on seasonal food; itâ€™s not the same menu all year long. As the ingredients are available; thatâ€™s what weâ€™ll use.â€
The homemade pasta dishes include Salmon Cappelletti with melted leeks and peas, and a white wine cream; Radiatore Vongole with garlic, grape tomatoes, white wine and crispy leeks; Fettuccine Putanesca with Kalamata and green olives, caper berries, anchovies and marinara; Gnocchi Fresca with fresh tomato, spring onion, asparagus and white wine; Ricotta Strangliopretti with oven-dried tomatoes, roasted eggplant, fennel and shaved ricotta salata; Manicotti Fatto, home-made manicotti shells stuffed with ricotta and mozzarella cheese, shrimp and broccoli rabe in a pink vodka sauce; and Mezzaluna made with shrimp, leeks, tomato and saffron sauce. ($10.95-$16.95)
Antipasto dishes feature Stuffed Peppadew Peppers with fresh mozzarella, prosciutto, artichoke hearts and cherry peppers; Fried Calamari; Grilled Octopus; Ritaâ€™s Meatballs; Brasaola Carpaccio; and Truffle Gnocchi and Meatballs. ($7.95-$12.95) Insalata (salads) include the Orange and Fennel; Caesar; and Baby Spinach. ($6.95; add Shrimp or Chicken for $5.95) Pizzas are the Margarita; Prosciutto; Funghi; and Sausage and Peppers. ($8.95-$11.95)
The Entratas (entrees) offer a kaleidoscope of flavors like the Grilled Bronzino with charred lemon vinaigrette, broccoli rabe, crispy pancetta and red bliss potatoes; Roasted Salmon with oven-roasted tomato risotto, grilled fennel and a tomato fennel broth; Grilled Teres Major with Rosemary roasted potatoes, green beans, and red wine jus; Grilled Twin Pork Chops with asparagus, mushroom, potato hash and pomegranate balsamic drizzle; Chicken Montebianco, two chicken breasts layered with prosciutto, spinach and shrimp in a sherry cream sauce; Chicken Sorrentino with prosciutto, fried eggplant, mozzarella cheese combined with chicken breast and sherried marinara sauce; and Braised Short Ribs with parmesan mashed potatoes, baby carrots and barolo jus. ($15.95-$25.95)
â€œWe have the classics, too,â€ Izzy says, â€œlike our Chicken Cardinal with roasted peppers, prosciutto, sautÃ©ed shrimp and mozzarella; and our Eggplant Parmigiana, which is available all the time. So is the Chicken Parmigiana. These are Ritaâ€™s recipes from when we first opened and they are always on the menu.â€
Chef Stephen honors the traditional recipes that Rita & Joeâ€™s has served to their customers over the years, but heâ€™s added his own contemporary twist. And if a customer requests something thatâ€™s not on the menu, just like another Rita & Joeâ€™s tradition, Chef Stephen says he will always try to fulfill the request.
â€œAs long as I have the ingredients, thereâ€™s no reason for me to say no,â€ Chef Stephen says. â€œWe will always try to accommodate everybody.â€
Chef Stephen brings to Rita & Joeâ€™s a passion for cooking that goes back to when he was a kid watching his parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts create dishes for the family meals.
â€œIn my family, everyoneâ€™s a good cook,â€ Chef Stephen says. â€œWe would have these big family dinners at Grandmaâ€™s house in Spotswood. Russian food was our big staple. Weâ€™d have 30-40 people gathered around the table on holidays.â€
At Rita & Joeâ€™s there are daily specials; and they make their own desserts. The restaurant is open 7 days a week for lunch and dinner; and thereâ€™s a banquet room adjacent to the restaurant for Christenings, baby showers, graduation parties, wedding receptions and corporate functions.
And although Jersey Cityâ€™s Marion section continues to undergo change â€“ the new Mana Contemporary art museum and art storage facility is located just down the street â€“ Rita & Joeâ€™s continues to be a neighborhood staple and go-to destination for traditional Italian cuisine.
â€œWeâ€™ve been here 30 years,â€ Izzy says. â€œWeâ€™ve become one of Jersey Cityâ€™s landmarks.â€
If you go
Rita & Joeâ€™s
142 Broadway, JC
Kitchen opens: Mon-Thurs, 11:30 am – 9:45 pm
Fri, 11:30 am – 10:45 pm; Sat, 1 – 10:45 pm
Sun, 1 pm – 9 pm