"It's really one of the most unique hot dogs in the country."
The New Jersey Italian hot dog has been haunting me since starting this Hot Dog of the Week column a little more than a year ago. I've been dying to try one and finally made it to North Jersey to do so. Honestly I was a bit worried that this holy grail of hot dogs wouldn't live up to the hype. I had the opportunity recently to stop at Joe Joe's Italian Hot Dogs in Toms River, one of the few places in central or south Jersey serving an authentic New Jersey Italian hot dog, the other being Jersey Dogs near Fort Dix.
My mind has officially been blown.
The New Jersey Italian Hot Dog was born in Newark where big loaves of Pizza Bread, almost like Muffuletta bread but with a hole in the middle, are made by local Italian bakeries. The bread is cut into quarters, sliced down the middle, and stuffed with a deep fried hot dog or two. Then topped with onions and peppers and a giant heap of deep fried potatoes.
The soft pizza bread is a perfect vehicle for the ingredients, holding everything together and soaking up some of the grease. The sandwich was a lot cleaner than I expected. The dog was gently fried rather than hammered into oblivion like a "ripper" and the potatoes were crispy on the outside, soft in the middle, and not greasy at all.
It's really one of the most unique hot dogs in the country, and has never really gotten popular outside of the small area of New Jersey where it originated. Once you've had the real thing, you'll understand what all the fuss is about. I haven't even been up north to the legendary Jimmy Buff's and Dicki Dee's, although now that I've had a taste I'm ready to try every Italian hot dog in the state.
The ketchup question is a tough one here. Most hot dog aficionados (myself included) are offended by the very idea of ketchup anywhere near a hot dog. But you see plenty of photos of New Jersey Italian hot dogs slathered with the red stuff. I did keep the ketchup off the dog, but poured some on the side for the stray potatoes. No need to order a side of fries. The whole situation is slightly similar to Chicago's minimalist Depression Dogs served with hand-cut fries, sort of on the side but also sort of on the hot dog.
What really makes the New Jersey Italian Hot Dog special are the unique ingredients, especially the pizza bread. Plenty of pizza shops sell Italian hot dogs in sub rolls, but really, it's not the same thing. And the dog absolutely has to be a natural casing local New Jersey frank: Joe Joe's uses a Best Provisions all-beef dog. The peppers and onions here were also terrific, thin sliced and soft, like they had been cooked down slowly for hours (although I think the standard preparation is a shallow deep-fry).
The only major variation seems to be in the potato preparation. Some are cut into wedges resembling Jo Jo Potatoes, while others are round slices almost as thin as potato chips, with the skin still on. Joe Joe's were fatter round slices, about half to three-fourths of an inch thick, perfectly seasoned and something I would be happy to order on their own.
The combination of peppers, onions, and potatoes is a fairly common one in Italian American cooking. Anyone with a Brooklyn-raised grandmother has probably had it cooked with eggs or as a slight variation on sausage and peppers. At a backyard barbecue in Jersey recently I was surprised to see a side dish of slow-cooked peppers and onions with chunks of potato and cut-up Sabrett hot dogs.
Slightly related are pepper and egg and potato and egg sandwiches that are common at old-school South Philly luncheonettes, popularized as a substitute for meat during Lent, although available with eggs, peppers, onions, potato, and Italian sausage on a hoagie roll.
The very first New Jersey Italian Hot Dogs are said to have been served by Jimmy Buff owner James Racioppi's grandmother, who concocted the sandwiches to serve at her husband's basement card games. The original Jimmy Buff's restaurant was in Newark, no longer standing today, but survived by several locations owned by various family members. There's also Dickie Dees Pizza in Newark, open since the 1950s, which may be Jersey's oldest standing Italian hot dog joint.
One far-off legend has the origins of the Italian hot dog and pizza bread going all the way back to Italy, where peasants would supposedly stuff the bread with sausages and vegetables and hang it on the end of a stick (hence, the hole).
Italian hot dogs outside North Jersey are more often than not a lesser imitation involving hash browns and sauteed peppers thrown on a boiled hot dog on a standard bun. Or a concoction involving tomato sauce and mozzarella that has no relation to the New Jersey Italian hot dog. Nicky & Pete's version in Philadelphia was a little better, but not in the same league as the real thing.
One problem is that pizza bread is unheard of and unavailable outside of New Jersey, another problem being the lack of exposure or interest in the sandwich outside of North Jersey. Although that seems to be changing with some upcoming Food Network coverage, and the first serious "haute dog" adaptation of the New Jersey Italian dog at St Anselm in Brooklyn, a new spot by the owners of Fette Sau and Spuyten Duyvil. Their "Newark Dog" looks to be pretty close to the original, with two deep-fried Karl Ehmer hot dogs jammed into pizza bread with peppers, onions, and french fries.
Italian Hot Dogs at Jimmy Buff's have been featured on Travel Channel's Hot Dog Paradise, with a cameo from John Fox aka hotdogloverhere on Serious Eats, probably the foremost expert on Italian hot dogs and New Jersey hot dogs in general. John will be back on the Travel Channel as Jimmy Buff's "Superfan" for an upcoming episode of Food Wars that pits Buff's against Charlie's Famous in Kenilworth.
Where to find New Jersey Italian Hot Dogs
Joe Joe's Italian Hot Dogs Coolidge Ave & Route 37 East; Toms River, NJ 08753
Joe Joe's website
Jimmy Buff's 60 Washington Street; West Orange, NJ 07052-5535
Charlie's Famous 18 South Michigan Avenue, Kenilworth NJ
Charlie's Famous at hollyeats.com
Dickie Dee's 380 Bloomfield Ave, Newark, NJ 07107
Dickie Dees at hollyeats.com
Tommy's Italian Sausage 900 N. Second Avenue, Elizabeth NJ 07201
Jersey Dispatch: Tommy's Italian Sausage
St. Anselm 355 Metropolitan Ave at Havemeyer St, Brooklyn NY 11211
Where to Find Newark-Style Pizza Bread
Calandra's Bakery 234 Bloomfield Avenue; Caldwell NJ 07006
Carmen's Italian Bakery 609 Chestnut Street; Union NJ 07083
Di Paolo Bakery 1275 Stuyvesant Avenue, Union NJ 399 Bloomfield Avenue, Newark NJ