Hidden away on a residential block in Greenville Laico’s is one of Jersey City’s most beloved restaurants.
Nestled in the middle of a block of houses in Greenville — one of Jersey City’s last old world charm neighborhoods — Laico’s Italian Restaurant is something you would likely never stumble upon unless you lived in the area or heard about the landmark dining enclave from a friend. Terhune Avenue, between West Side Avenue and Kennedy Boulevard, is a quaint, front-yard-lined streetscape, where the rustling of trees can actually be heard and conversations across porch steps carry on undisturbed. Something significant permeates the sidewalks here perhaps it’s the increasingly rare urban quietude, the sense that time has been slightly slowed, or the powerful realization that, here on Terhune, a Jersey City community has been preserved.
On a recent Saturday night, at around 9 pm, there were no moving cars or people in sight. That is, until the valet appeared to move a vehicle into the drive-way-sized lot — a nice gesture that Laico’s offers, considering that street parking can be tricky. The restaurant’s unassuming outside seems like a townhouse situated on a quiet, residential street, until you look closely and notice the green awning with the scripted Laico’s signage. In fact, it is a townhouse; the restaurant occupies the street level. Push open the front door and, in an instant, step into a replica of your grandmother’s living room, with photographs of family adorning the walls.
But don’t let the warm, comforting decor confuse you: Laico’s is also a major white-tablecloth establishment with waiters and waitresses in black tie, serving up some of the city’s best authentic Italian fare. You sit down in Laico’s as if you are an actual Laico family member — or a resident on Terhune invited to a neighbor’s for a memorable meal.
Greg Laico, photo credit Steve Gold
THE FAMILY TOUCH
On May 1, 1972, Louis Laico and his wife, Felice, opened the business as a pizzeria with a bar. Originally it was a college hangout and all about the bar; its surface used to extend the length of the space. Add to that “a jukebox and shuffle board, which didn’t exist anywhere else around here,” recalls Jimmy Wolowitz, the manager and bartender who has been tending bar at Laico’s for the past 35 years. The menu at that time consisted of Italian sandwiches.
But the college kids were actually the ones who helped transform the establishment into what it is today, asking their visiting parents to take them there to eat. “It went from ‘It’s 2 am, everyone get out of here,’ to a nice quality restaurant,” said Wolowitz. When the main chef suddenly passed away, Louis Laico’s son, Louis Jr., came back from college and helped out in the kitchen. He later turned the business into a full on Italian restaurant with an extensive menu of pasta, seafood, and meat-based entrees, expanding the space to include the back lower level area.
Since its founding Laico’s has remained a local favorite, with a loyal customer base. Waitress Grace Erickson — herself a Laico’s veteran — pointed out a lively group in their 40s and 50s who had been coming to the restaurant since they were young children.
The secret to Laico’s uniqueness lies in the fact that family members have been directly involved in its operation — from the delicious home-cooked Italian meals to the intimate mingling with customers.
“It’s the family touch,” said Wolowitz, who is also married to Louis Jr.’s sister-in-law. “The two sons work here. It’s the quality of food.”
Laico’s is, in the truest sense, a home away from home. Nancy Salerno, sister-in-law of Louis Jr., who assists with Laico’s social-media presence, explains, “When we go to my sister’s house for holidays, that’s the food we’re eating: really good, authentic Italian food.”
That family mentality and Italian-American cuisine authenticity has, inevitably, attracted people from outside the city’s borders.
“It’s beyond a neighborhood restaurant now,” said Salerno. “A lot of people are calling it a destination restaurant.”
In fact, more than half of the clientele are not Greenville residents anymore. Broadway superstar Nathan Lane was recently spotted enjoying a meal at the restaurant. And in 2010, Bloomberg Businessweek named Laico’s the best pre-game meal for Giants and Jets fans, recommending the veal francese and shrimp fra diavolo.
Chef Edwin at Laico’s, photo credit Steve Gold
DINNER IS SERVED
Start with the classic Mozzarella Caprese: mozzarella cheese, fresh tomatoes, onions, and basil in a balsamic vinaigrette. Entrees are served with a family-style salad: a basic tomato, romaine lettuce, and onion mix in balsamic vinaigrette, lovely in its simplicity. The fresh bread Laico’s serves is warm and doughy on the inside, crusty on the outside. (It comes from Dom’s Bakery in Hoboken.) Dip it into your salad dressing and save some for your main dish — it’s great for soaking up the sauce.
With so many entrée choices, the knowledgeable and friendly wait staff will gladly explain dishes in greater depth to help inform your decision. (All of the main protein dishes come with a side of pasta, vegetables, or potatoes.) One house favorite is the Paglia e Fieno — Italian for “straw and hay,” represented here as a mixture of yellow and green tagliatelle — prepared with shrimp and scallops in a vodka cream sauce. The shrimp in this dish can stand on its own and the scallops are even better: melt-in-your-mouth good. Laico’s is, after all, well-known for its quality regarding fresh fish.
“We have several different purveyors we use for seafood, but if we open up a delivery and it doesn’t look right, we send it back,” explained Wolowitz. “That’s Louis Jr.’s rule. We’re not going to settle; it has to be good.”
In the mood for a meat-based dish? Try the popular veal parmesan dinner with pasta. The biggest rave for this Italian-American staple: The veal is in no way tough; it’s tender and moist, and has a strong bold flavor. The spaghetti is cooked al dente, and the sauce is more savory than the sweeter marinara you typically find at American-Italian joints.
For dessert, the Tiramisu at Laico’s is a must-try, made with espresso and rum-soaked Vienna fingers. Accompanied by a perfect ending note of a traditional Italian espresso, cappuccino, Sambuca or Frangelico.
Laico’s Exterior, photo credit Rob Dickar
HOME OR AWAY
Laico’s, at 67 Terhune Avenue, is a 22-minute drive from downtown Jersey City, and takes its last orders at 9:30 pm on weeknights. On Sundays, Laico’s opens at 1 pm and closes at 11:30 pm (earlier if it’s slow.) Food can be prepared for takeout and is just as delicious at home. Rigatoni with shrimp in arrabbiata sauce (tomato-based and made with hot peppers, quite spicy) certainly impressed. The shrimp was fresh; the pasta was cooked perfectly, and the portion is generous enough for leftovers.
Even during the daytime, the restaurant retains a cozy atmosphere. There was a mixed, busy crowd of families, new couples, and foodie friends — a great range of ages. Many eat at the bar and watch a game on one of Laico’s three TVs, two small screens above the bar and a large flat-screen above the espresso bar.
Wolowitz mixes solid old-school cocktails and he only uses fresh-squeezed grapefruit and orange juice, which makes a difference for the discerning drinker. The restaurant carries reasonably priced wines (lots of bottle choices under $30.) Enjoy a glass of Hahn cabernet while waiting for a personal margarita pizza, made with their classic tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, and basil on a thin crust, baked in a brick oven. Laico’s regulars rave about the pork; try the pork medallions with cherry peppers and mushrooms, and start with either the casino or zuppa di clams, both staples in many Italian-American households.
Laicos Tiramisu, photo credit Steve Gold
THE GANG’S ALL HERE
On a weeknight, you’ll find the same energy as on the weekend. Regulars range from first and second generation Italian-Americans, to local police and firefighters, as well as many others who grew up in the area, some driving in from distant towns.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re new or old. Everybody gets treated the same way,” Wolowitz assures.
Patrick Ducey, a frequent patron and retired a firefighter who was born-and-raised in the neighborhood, adds with a laugh, “I’ve been coming here for 21 years, and I’m still considered a ‘newbie!’”
Laico’s is located at 67 Terhune Avenue. You can check daily specials on their Facebook page. For more information visit, laicosjc.com. This article originally appeared in the 2015 Fall issue of JCI Magazine.
All other photos Steve Gold except where noted. Catherine Hecht and Jack Silbert contributed to this article.