Upon learning that the Rosenthal brothers (of Town Hall and Anchor and Hope fame) were opening Jersey, a restaurant dedicated to their home state and specifically its exemplary pizza, I was psyched. Save for Tony's of North Beach, no one in the Bay Area has served a Trenton style pie in which crushed tomatoes are slathered on top of the cheese and crust. To heighten my anticipation, the website's hype promised to "fill the void" of "true East Coast pizza out here."
So it was a bit of a surprise to pick up Jersey's menu at lunch one day and see it dominated by a plethora of Northern California cuisine-inspired creations. There were ahi tuna confit arancini, marinated beets, and a Dungeness crab salad with Thai chili sauce.
What does any of that have anything to do with New Jersey? And the exposed brick walls and dangling light bulbs? More SOMA than Secaucus.
Due to its "jalapeño fontina mornay" topping, I was hesitant to order the meatball sandwich, but my concerns proved to be unwarranted. A hearty, piquant tomato sauce blanketed four large, well-spiced, almost gamey meatballs and the mornay tasted no different than the straight Parmesan that I was hoping for.
Equally worthy was a chicken Parmesan sandwich featuring a perfectly crisped breast and that same stellar sauce. Both of these beauties were layered onto exemplary rolls that shattered on impact. Close my eyes and I could have been in the Rosenthals’ hometown of Edison.
A bulb of burrata played off of crispy celery hearts brought me right back to San Francisco. It's hard not to like creamy cheese livened by a perky romesco, but this unremarkable dish could have been on any number of menus within a mile radius.
We shared a margherita pizza described as having a "California style" crust. It was gummy and literally flopped down, even though it was sparsely sauced and conservatively dotted with fresh mozzarella and basil.
At dinner, we concentrated on the more traditional Italian items. Considering the aforementioned bravado, the under sauced Trenton pie disappointed as it clearly had spent considerable time under a heat lamp, rendering the cheese gloppy and the crust a bit tough. This was due to us asking our server to slow down. Though the dining room was half-full, we were being rushed through our meal at a frenetic pace and found our pastas piled on top of our appetizers. There was certainly no room for a pizza stand.
One of those pastas, an al dente pappardelle bathed in an earthy guanciale bolognese, was the winner of the night. A snappy squid ink fettuccine with tender cuttlefish lacked the pungency that I typically associate with this dish.
Luckily, our second pizza, the New Yorker, arrived fresh out of the oven loaded with sausage, pepperoni and pancetta. Though the distinctively sour tinged crust couldn't hold up under this glorious meat fest, it didn't matter. Thrilled to finally be eating something that screamed New Jersey, we polished the pie off.
I can’t help but wonder if Jersey’s ownership got frightened by our city’s longest tenured critic’s (rhymes with sour) shadow, and tailored the food more to his sensibilities. And with a new Tony’s open nearby, Jersey doesn’t even have the most “Jersey” style food on its own street.
Location: 145 Second St. (at Mission Street), S.F.
Contact: (415) 912-1502, www.jerseysf.com
Hours: 7 to 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday-Friday, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Price range: $6 to $28
Recommended dishes: Chicken Parmesan sandwich ($15), meatball sandwich ($15), papparadelle with guanciale bolognese ($15 appetizer, $22 main), New Yorker pizza ($25)
Credit cards: All major