In the weeks following spring break, I’ve been struck, yet again, by constant hankerings for the flavors of home. As I’ve already written in this column, these cravings include the meals my mother and the other phenomenal home cooks in my family dish out to my clamoring cousins and me. However, I also find myself longing for my favorite bites from mom-and-pop businesses all over North Jersey.
Of all these spots — from classic diners serving sliders with still-crunchy onions and gooey cheese, pizzerias heating time-honored slices to palate-singeing temperatures and ramen shops that have been warming stomachs and hearts for decades — there’s one that I hold most dear. It’s been a near-constant in my life and my family’s since before I was born, and every time I head back from campus, I truly don’t feel at home until I stop in for a taste of its familiar fare.
I’m talking about my uncle (and godfather) Chris’s Italian deli, Il Classico. For those in a reasonable vicinity to Essex county, I’ll shamelessly plug its address: 397 US-46, Fairfield, NJ 07004.
Uncle Chris opened his first deli, Il Panino, with his business partner (and my cousin by some extension that escapes me), Marco, right across the highway from the current location, shortly after I was born. In a town that may have as many Italian delis as fire hydrants, serving #1’s* and pasta salads to construction workers and cops on their lunch break was admittedly not a revolutionary endeavor, but that’s no reason to discount its challenges.
Aside from clearing the technical hurdles of opening a food service establishment in their relative youth, Uncle Chris and Marco managed to keep a business afloat, serve great food and build a space of community all at once, and that deserves recognition.
More personally, Il Panino was a central piece of my obnoxiously Italian-American childhood and the beginning of my lifelong love of food. I can remember heading directly from my sister’s kindergarten drop off to plant myself at the counter and devour some version of a menu mainstay adapted for the discriminating palate of a five year-old.
I wouldn’t say that I could place specific “taste memories” (a term food people love to abuse) on that white pleather barstool, but spending that much time watching the kitchen guys expertly drape dried meats over sandwiches and listening to the whir of vertical slicers undoubtedly sparked an interest not only in this cuisine but in the business and the people devoted to it.
Plus, the deli became a home away from home for the extended Guerriero clan. It was a scant mile down Route 46 away from my dad’s office, a few minutes in the other direction from my aunt’s salon and maybe a half hour from the family’s seat in Paterson, promising a constant stream of relatives activating the tin bell hanging on the front door.
So it was disheartening to say the least when Uncle Chris and Marco were forced to sell Il Panino shortly after the Recession devastated small businesses across the country. Our family lost a reliable centrifugal force, and many more lost their favorite place to enjoy a quick and heartening meal.
But of course, the essence that made Il Panino so successful didn’t die with economic downturn, and it wasn’t long before those two stalwarts of salame opened up Il Classico in a strip mall right across the highway.
Il Classico’s success quickly eclipsed its predecessor’s. Quiet days are few, with most lunch rushes bringing a line that would stretch out the door if it weren’t for the bewildering efficiency of the men and women behind the counter. An extended menu boasts specialty panini packed with fried eggplant, traditional daily soups (pasta e fagioli, or basta fazul as most Italo-Americans call it, is a mainstay) and southern Italian classics like arancini al ragù.
Of course, Il Classico isn’t unique in these virtues, and I hope we come to recognize how significant it and its peers are. The American food world seems to be entering a new era of authenticity, one that celebrates the cuisines that, via de facto innovations of sorts, bastardized ancestral dishes to adapt them to a New World palate. Some especially insufferable and insensitive writers have used the term “red sauce revival” to describe this phenomenon specific to Italian-American food, which manifests in both gimmicky Instagram fodder at places like Don Angie and deeply respectful, sincere homages at the new slice shops of New York City.
I believe that the next step of this evolution will come in recognizing that Italian-American cooking never truly waned in quality or culinary cultural significance. Places like Il Classico — where they make mozzarella every morning at dawn and preserve cherished culinary traditions — will come to be celebrated just as much as the new wave of “red sauce” cuisine, both for the quality of the staples they dish out on paper plates and their force in the communities they help hold together.
*If you find yourself at an Italian deli where the #1 sandwich is anything but some combination of ham, bologna, capicola, mortadella and pepperoni topped with provolone, lettuce, tomato and/or onion and dressed with olive oil and red wine vinegar, leave immediately and alert the authorities.