By JOHN T. WARD
With two Italian restaurants and a television show about the food and wine of Italy in his portfolio, Victor Rallo‘s latest venture might strike some as a sharp departure from his obsession with his ancestral homeland.
But Surf BBQ, which opened last week in Rumson, is simply the latest turn in a continuing quest for culinary “authenticity,” Rallo told redbankgreen in a recent interview.
“This is about the only true, historical American cuisine,” he said. “I wanted to open something great, but I wanted it to be true to its origins.”
Surf BBQ, which the 52-year-old Fair Haven resident owns with his brother, Bob, and members of the Diaco family of Rumson, opened quietly last Thursday in the East River Road building that previously housed Briody’s, Murray MacGregor’s Publik House and, most recently, Molly Maguire’s Gastropub.
As the owner of the nearby Undici, on West River Road, and Birravino, in Red Bank, Rallo he “couldn’t open another Italian restaurant” without cannibalizing his existing businesses. Besides, he said, you can’t go anywhere in the Greater Red Bank Green without finding an Italian eatery.
The idea for his latest venture has been slow-cooking for the past three years, Rallo said, since he “started eating barbecue and traveling around,” looking for the good stuff and learning the history of the cuisine.
Though now associated with the southern United States, the slow-cooking of meat over an indirect flame came that came to be known in America as barbecue is believed to have been dubbed barbacoa by the earliest Spanish explorers of the Caribbean, according to one popular theory.
In Brooklyn, at Hometown Barbecue, Rallo met the man he calls “the king of barbecue,” pitmaster Billy Durney. Until that moment, Rallo wasn’t ready to start planning a BBQ restaurant of his own, but he said he was blown away by the quality of the meat and Durney’s passion for the form. So he talked Durney into advising him on the creation of what became Surf BBQ, and Durney has agreed to stay on the project through the first year, Rallo said.
Alex Smith, who worked at the original Mighty Quinn’s Barbecue in Manhattan’s East Village, is the on-site pitmaster.
On Saturday, there was a long line of customers almost non-stop for eight hours, Rallo said. There’s no wait service, except for drinks. Customers line up at a counter at the edge of the open kitchen, place their orders and eat, commune-style, at picnic tables built, like much of the interior, from repurposed wood.
“We recycled America here,” Rallo said, noting the salvaged New York City brick, tables made of recycled timbers and touches of exposed steel. “You’re trying create an historica feel, and barbecue is historic.”
As with the remodeling and rebranding of the former Basil T Leaf’s into Birravino, Rallo did the interior design himself, while running two restaurants, starring in the exploratory “Eat, Drink Italy” documentary series on public television, and keeping fit as a cyclist and surfer.
All that activity would seem to suggest an insatiable creative streak. Does it? Rallo demurs.
“I think I understand what people are looking for in an experience,” he said. “That experience is atmosphere, service and food, and all three parts are equal.”
At the same time, Rallo knows the rap about his other eateries.
“People say Rallo’s restaurants are expensive,” he said. “Rallo’s restaurants aren’t expensive. Rallo’s restaurants serve prime ingredients. Prime ingredients cost more. That’ll be the same here.”
Surf BBQ features Duroc pork, Creekstone Farms brisket, and organic and hormone-free chickens. They’re the anchor ingredients in a menu so simple and limited that “there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to make them all perfectly,” said Rallo, who’s aiming for a three-star Michelin rating.
The centerpiece of the kitchen is a wood-fired Oyler smoking pit dubbed “the Duke.” Fueled solely by wood — New Jersey oak and fruitwoods, in particular — the cooker runs 18 hours a day, which means at least one employee must tend it overnight.
The pit “can only hold a thousand pounds of meat,” said Rallo. “If you sell a thousand pounds in a day, the Duke needs to be replenished” early enough for the next’s day’s customers. Another cooker, christened Maybelline, is for asada-cooking ribs over a wood flame.
“It’s not like a regular restaurant,” said Rallo. “You don’t run out of food, put on an 18-hour brisket and say, ‘Okay, in a few minutes, we’ll have some more.’ It’s not like boiling pasta. When you’re out you’re out.”
Available at the 28-seat bar are 16 craft beers on tap, 15 in bottles and cans, 50 bourbons and 30 whiskeys, said Rallo.
Wait: 50 bourbons? The Rallo brothers tasted “a couple of hundred bourbons before we decided” which to offer, said Victor. “We’re sommeliers and wine aficionados, and those nuances you look for in wine, while not exactly the same, are the nuances you look for in craft-brewed bourbons and whiskeys,” he said.
The restaurant also won borough approval to put picnic tables outside.
“What could be better on a hot summer night than barbecue, beer and bourbon?” Rallo asked.
Surf BBQ is open Wednesday through Monday (closed Tuesdays) from 3:30 p.m. “until sold-out,” which Rallo expects will be somewhere between 10 p.m. and midnight; it opens at noon on Saturday and Sunday. There ‘s a takeout entrance on the Blackpoint Road side of the building, with packaged goods for sale, too.