Having just returned from a short week in northern NJ, I did my best to return to the dining staples that characterized my youth growing up in Bergen County. If there is one constant to why I think food just tastes better in the tri-state area it is the water. This theory is evident in the breads produced in and around the Garden State. Let’s examine a few:
Bagels. My mother Fay is the consummate expert on a good bagel and I rely on her to ensure my bagel experience is the best that NJ can offer. Indeed, my bagel experiences with my mother are rarely short of excellent. She prefers Paul’s Emerson Bagels in Emerson, NJ (although I lean towards Ronnie’s in Hillsdale). According to Fay, a good bagel is still warm in the bag, has a slight crisp when you delicately poke into its outer shell and an inside that is moist, airy, and a bit chewy. The ONLY way to achieve this is to boil the bagel in water before baking it. I believe the rest of the country either does not get this step or the water that the bagels are boiled in is just different. This is why bagels outside of the tri-state area must be toasted before consuming and becomes more rolls than bagels. IMHO, a toasted bagel is a ruined bagel.
Pizza. Pizza aficionados argue about the sauce, the cheese, and the toppings. Nope—none of the above—it’s the crust. No need for further argument here (you can leave a comment though). Is it the water that makes the crust good? Perhaps. Since the Lisanti Corp. carries the majority of tri-state boxed pizza supplies, cheeses, oils, sauces, carry-out boxes, etc., the one thing that differs from one strip mall pizza shop to the next is the locally-made dough. I am convinced that if Lisanti also supplied the dough from say, Pittsburgh, the pizza would not stand up to what makes NY/NJ pizza great. The pizza crust is what makes a pizza great. Pizza crust should be thin, able to wilt a bit on the end when you pick up a slice (YES, PIZZA MUST BE CONSUMED WITH THE HANDS, folding the slice from the crust. Save the knife and fork for the next time you’re in Chicago eating a pizza casserole). I think the mark of a good slice of ‘zah is the first bite and the last bite. Everything in between is spent thinking about the first bite and the anticipation of getting to the thicker crust (or as my kids used to call them “pizza bones” since they would leave a few on the plate after finishing a slice).
Other water-based thoughts. I’ve always thought the food just tasted better in NJ. Chinese food, corned beef sandwiches, hot dogs (see the Rutt’s Hut post) all deserve a nod. Jersey diners serve just about the best home cooking you can get. Even the simple “buttered roll and coffee” duo tastes better in the tri-state area. Is it the water? Is it the nostalgia? Is it simply that the tri-state palate demands quality foods and tastes? Perhaps all play a part; however, with all things being equal, the water must have something to do with it.