By JIM WILLIS
The exhaust vents of Red Bank’s numerous Italian restaurants already send up a Vesuvian cloud of aromatic garlic that envelops the Green.
Well, that cloud just got a little thicker.
A few weeks ago, Ben Mancuso quietly opened the doors to yet another Italian restaurant and pizzeria in the long-vacant space that once housed Red Bank Pizza.
But Mancuso isn’t especially worried about adding another entry to the already long roster of Italian restaurants in town.
“I’m bringing the name,” he says of Puglia, which shares a moniker with his family’s Manhattan-based restaurant.
“If I opened up here as Joe’s Pizzeria or Joe’s Restaurant, I’m just an ordinary guy on the block. But that name is a name that’s been in business since 1919 so we’re doing something right.”
The name originates with the town of Puglia, in the heel of Italy, whence Mancuso’s grandfather emigrated to New York. Some trivia for PieHole’s wine-swilling readers: it’s also home of Primitivo, Italy’s DNA clone of the Zinfandel grape.
Were it not for Hurricane Sandy, Mancuso might not be in Red Bank at all.
Up until three years ago, the 56-year-old Staten Island resident was working at the family’s New York restaurant before opening up his own space, Puglia-by-the-Sea in Staten Island. Mancuso poured everything into renovating the Staten Island location.
“I had a dining room that was smack on the water. When you sat in that dining room, you felt like you were on a cruise ship.”
Like many other busineses, Mancuso’s was devastated by Sandy.
“The night the storm was happening, I felt helpless. I never thought it would be what it was,” he says. “I left the restaurant about 7:30 p.m. I saw the windows were starting to get torn apart, and water was starting to come in. I left there thinking I was going to get some water damage, and I’d just come in the next day and get cleaned up.”
Mancuso says the next morning, he went back to see the damage. “I just fell on my knees and started crying. I was wiped out. Everything I worked for my entire life was out in the Raritan Bay.”
After being out of work for almost a year, Mancuso heard about the North Bridge Avenue space from his sister, Julie Baron, who had owned the memorabilia store Fameabilia on Monmouth Street.
“I said, ‘I gotta do something.’ So I came down and took a look at the place and spoke to the owner. I made a deal, and here I am,” says Mancuso.
He’s been in the space now for almost three months, and says he’s run into some difficulties with the borough trying to get the restaurant fully operational.
“Right now, I can’t open for lunch – the town won’t let me. And I’ve got a back room for parties that they won’t let me use,” he says.
Mancuso says he’s working with the borough to get opened. “Little by little I’m getting things done, working together with the town, but I’m getting hurt big time here by not being opened fully. Big time.”
Mancuso makes the trip down from Staten Island every day with his son, Michael Mancuso, 28. Michael will manage the restaurant and brings, quite literally, some special sauce to the restaurant.
PieHole tried a slice of the plain pie and noted the sauce really stood out with a bit of sweetness.
“I worked in the Manhattan kitchen and started to play around with the tomato sauce, and came up with this recipe,” says Michael, representing the fourth generation in the family business. “I’ve been using it on the pizza ever since.”
Michael isn’t the only passenger to make the trip down in the truck every day from Staten Island. “I take my water in here from New York every day to make the pizza,” says the elder Mancuso. “I don’t use New Jersey water. I use New York water.”
PieHole tried a slice of the regular or “New York style” pie, which had a thin but crisp crust compared to thicker, more dense offerings from other local pizza places like Gianni’s or New Corner Pizza. It, too, carried a bit of sweetness to it from the younger Mancuso’s sauce.
We also tried a slice of the Margherita – or “Little Italy” style, as the Mancusos called it –done with an even thinner style crust and silky, fresh mozzarella that is made in-house.
But the Mancusos don’t want to be known simply as a pizza joint.
“I want [it] to be known as a restaurant,” says the older Mancuso. “We’ve got dishes that we’re known for – the tripe, the Capuzzello [sheep’s head]. These are all old Italian dishes that – honest to God – a lot of restaurants just don’t make anymore.”
Currently Puglia opens daily at 4 p.m. Mancuso is optimistic that the town will allow him to operate at full capacity sometime in the next few weeks.
“I have to be optimistic. I’m banking on it,” he says.
Puglia of New York
North Bridge Avenue Red Bank