North Jersey Special: The Tale of Belmont Tavern's Chicken Savoy

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[Photographs: Drew Lazor]

Nearly every luminary with a photo on the Belmont Tavern's walls—"98 percent," resident raconteur Jimmy Cuomo will tell you—has actually eaten at the Belmont Tavern.

Step in off Belleville, New Jersey's busy Bloomfield Avenue, do a spin, and you'll meet them all, loosely grouped on the wood-paneled walls in plain black frames. Legendary songstress Connie Francis, a local girl. Jocks, like former Giants running back Tiki Barber and Knicks legend Ernie Grunfeld. Hollywood wise guys like Joe Piscopo and Frank Vincent. Clint Eastwood, who directed the film adaptation of the Jersey Boys jukebox musical set in the neighborhood, is a fan; he was in for a meal in 2013, popping hot peppers like they were jelly beans. Frankie Valli, the OG Jersey Boy, is one, too.

There are two begrudging exceptions to Cuomo's 98 percent: Joe Torre, since the skipper's son eats there, and Pope John Paul II. Cuomo has actually lobbied to revoke His Holiness' dinner dispensation ("The Pope can come down!"), but his waitresses won't let him.

The Belmont, which has been in Cuomo's family for decades, has long had a knack for luring in a certain class of notable, especially those with Jersey roots. Spend enough time at the bar, nursing a longneck and staring at the Deer Hunter American flag obscuring the marbled mirror backsplash, and you'll hear Cuomo, holding court in his Belmont polo, slip into stories, yarns thick with surnames like Pesci, Roselli, and Gandolfini.

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But celebrity customers are just one part of the Belmont's repute. A far greater part is evidenced by a sign visible from the sidewalk: Stretch's Chicken Savoy. There are plenty of dishes available on the Italian-American menu, but this is the one people come for, from near and far. It's a simple dish: Cut-up chicken rubbed down with a fat handful of garlic, hard cheese, and herbs, then roasted in a screaming-hot oven and splashed with vinegar, which sends aromas of schmaltz and spice right up to your nose.

It's now a dish found all over—but only in—northern New Jersey, and as with most hyper-regional foods, its devotees are as idiosyncratic as its birthplace.

The Belmont Tavern is actually two distinct businesses, working together on the strength of what locals whimsically refer to as a "Belleville contract"—a handshake. Cuomo's family took over the tavern portion of the operation, separate from the dining room, in 1965. Two years later, his father and uncle brought in Charles "Stretch" Verdicchio, a butcher-turned-chef with a nice touch on the line, a head of hair like Dean Martin and a knack for making friends.

Two of the largest photos on display at the Belmont feature Stretch. In one, he's proudly hoisting up a lobster with claws the size of Pomeranians. The other is him mugging for the camera, a bit of balled-up linen clasped in his hands, next to none other than Joe DiMaggio. ("Stretch—never did find out what was under the napkin," reads a scribble from the Yankee Clipper.)

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Despite his seemingly high profile, nailing down solid information on Stretch is about as easy as nailing down solid information on D.B. Cooper. Even people who knew him, like Cuomo, or his son-in-law Norb Wroblewski, speak about Stretch in vague terms. He learned the trade from his dad and cooked out around the Hoover Dam as part of a New Deal job placement—they think. Back when the Belmont was big on live music, he'd pop out of the kitchen and sing a tune or two with the performers, they say. Neither seems exactly sure of where his nickname came from. (Best we could muster: He was lanky.)

And yet Stretch, who passed away in 1989, is still a big part of the Belmont's personality, with enough name recognition to tout his best-known dish in the window out front. Over the years, it's helped the restaurant back away from its unflattering reputation as a gruff goodfellas hangout and refocus its marketing. "Our perception now is not that it's a wise guy joint," says Wroblewski, not the only Belmont associate to swiftly shift subjects when Sopranos-style chatter arises. "It's that it's a good place to eat."

Like at many places up here, the staff still seems to maintain a bit of a wink-and-nod relationship with the mob mentality. In 2008, Stretch's daughter Annette pulled the old "If I tell you, then we'd have to kill you" line when Saveur came calling for a recipe. "Don't ask for the Savoy recipe—you could get hurt," joked political pundit Steve Adubato in a 2007 New Jersey Monthly column. Still, the food is the most tangible aspect of Stretch's legacy, and Chicken Savoy—a Verdicchio family recipe, as far as anyone knows—is its jewel.

"It's not an unusual dish," says Wroblewski, a former accountant and Army Reserve pilot married to Annette. "It's not difficult to make. We just don't tell anyone how we do it."

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In recent years, Wroblewski, along with his Ecuadorian-born chef Leo Lukar, has overseen the kitchen at the Belmont—"a little Polish kid that's cooking Italian," as he puts it. This has involved plenty of Chicken Savoy preparation. And he's right that it's simple, at least from an observer's standpoint. Pieces of bone-in dark meat chicken relax in rectangular pans, dusted in an unassuming blend of cheese, herbs, and spices. The bird slides into a hot oven, where the skin roasts to a swoon-inducing crisp. It bakes a little longer than you'd think.

At some point after the pans are pulled, they get doused down with a generous squeeze of red wine vinegar, which sizzles and caramelizes and clings to the meat like a second skin. Fans will tell you this is the key ingredient. "It's the vinegar that just romances you," says Ron Silver, a Chicken Savoy enthusiast who visits the Belmont (and its many competitors) specifically for the dish.

If there are other steps to the recipe, the Belmont isn't tipping its hand. The bewitching result: a juicy, garlicky, giddy, tangy paesano adobo that doesn't need any condiments or accompaniments to outshine everything else splayed out across the red-and-white checkered tablecloths. It's easily the most-ordered plate at the Belmont, so much so that Wroblewski begins baking orders well before dinner customers even begin showing up. He knows it's going to go, and it always does.

Savoy, which has been on the menu since Stretch's first days at the Belmont, has cultivated some serious local notoriety over the decades—partly because it's good, partly because it's popular, and partly because it seems simple enough for anyone to snag and stick on their menu. True success isn't that easy, but that hasn't stopped people from trying.

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If it's a matter of taste, North Jerseyans are blessed with options. Three Guys From Italy, in Kenilworth, has offered its rendition of Chicken Savoy for each of the 31 years it's been in business. "It's a special dish. People, they understand it," says Nick Cascarano, the eldest of the three Cascarano brothers, natives of Bari. (He pronounces it "Sa-VOY-ahh.") Mama Angelo's in North Arlington serves it. A number of casual pizzerias, like Paulie G's in Whippany or Cousins' in Bloomfield, offer it, too. Residents have spotted renditions populating the weigh-and-pay trays of hot entrée bars of local supermarkets. It even appears, rebranded as "Bloomfield Chicken," at Hoboken's Littletown, a restaurant owned by Real Housewives of New Jersey progeny Chris and Albie Manzo.

Some of these places carve the meat off the bone. Some use fancy balsamic in lieu of the traditional red wine vinegar. Some serve the chicken with a thicker, more substantial sauce. Some throw the chicken over vegetables. Yet the Belmont has never changed the way they serve it, allowing others to riff as they please. "It's more imitated than duplicated," says Wroblewski.

Then there's Miele's in nearby Verona. At some point after Stretch's death, his son Peter, who was formerly associated with the Belmont, split off on his own to open Stretch's Italian Restaurant in Livingston. After that closed (its replacement, Anthony Marra's, slings Savoy), he linked up with Miele's owner Steven Amadeo, the son of a golf buddy. The recipes he passed on form the "Stretch's Favorites" section of Miele's menu, of which Savoy is a key component.

"One of the things Peter stipulated—do it this way, don't try to make it better," says Amadeo. "Don't mess with the recipe. Do it the way I taught you to do it."

The Belmont and Miele's crews are not interested in speaking about one another—try as I might, I could not produce the elusive Peter for this piece—but they seem to be coexisting, separated by less than five miles on Bloomfield Avenue. Silver, for one, cites Miele's version of Savoy as his personal favorite. "The chef at Miele's has taken the dish to a higher level than I've ever seen," he says.

The beauty of Chicken Savoy is that you don't have to agree or disagree with such statements to appreciate its place within a greater culinary conversation. It might have been born at the Belmont, but its ownership shifted long ago, from a singular chef to an entire region particular about what it likes and what it doesn't. Spiritually speaking, Chicken Savoy belongs to New Jersey. But Wroblewski's regulars remember who gave it to the Garden State in the first place. "Many, many restaurants try to do it," he says. "But nobody can come close to what it tastes like here."