If you’re from New Jersey you probably think you already know what an Italian Hot Dog is. Depending on what part of the state you’re from though, you’re definitely not thinking the same thing as everyone else. There are at least TWO variations of Jersey “Italian Hot Dogs,” and, of course, everyone thinks the one they grew up with is the “real” version.
But Who’s right?
Roughly half the state is familiar with the Newark Style Italian Hot Dog, a deep-fried dog or two crammed into a hollowed-out pizza roll with potatoes, peppers, and onions. But anyone living south of I95 will tell you a different story. The Trenton Style Italian Hot Dog (aka Casino Dog) shares traits with its northern counterpart, but several key distinctions put it in a foodigenous category on its own.
During the Great Depression, Italian immigrant Canio “Tony” Sbarro (no relation to the mall pizzeria chain) and his wife Theresa operated a hot dog cart in Chambersburg, the working class neighborhood that was Trenton’s “Little Italy” once upon a time. They slung hot dogs on-the-go outside the statehouse to government workers, politicians, and locals alike. It was there that Canio earned his lifelong nickname, “Tony Goes,” by running back and forth all day to secure the fresh ingredients he needed from different vendors to make his famous Italian Hot Dogs.
Their first storefront was a hole in the wall, but in 1935, the family officially established a permanent location for “The Casino'' on Anderson Street. No, there wasn't a backroom gambling outfit attached to this business in a neighborhood rife with mafiosi. The name refers to an Italian villa, a small gathering place for family and friends. “Tony Goes” was later added to the name because that's how most “Burgers” (Chambersburg residents) referred to it anyway.
Casino Tony Goes’s take on the Italian Hot Dog began with a soft torpedo roll that was baked locally and delivered fresh throughout the day. A mustard slathered Dietz & Watson hot dog was grilled and nestled into the roll. Deep fried potatoes added a piping hot, crispy texture. Finally, oil braised bell peppers cut longways were sauteed and laid on top. And absolutely, positively no onions!
It goes without saying that the sandwich was delicious, cheap, and easy to replicate. Copycats popped up and the style proliferated. So much so that in 2004, the state legislature passed a joint resolution recognizing the contributions of Casino Tony Goes and the Italian Hot Dog to the unique cultural history and personality of New Jersey’s capital city and beyond.
Sadly, though, Casino is just a memory after closing in 2007, as is Trenton’s Little Italy. But the good news is that when the Italians left, they took their hot dogs and tomato pies with them. Many old school Chambersburg businesses set up shop in nearby suburbs. Lillo’s Tomato Pies in Hainesport serves one of the more authentic IHD renditions. Jeppy’s Gourmet Pizza Shop, another Trenton original that relocated to Hamilton, serves a popular version (same ingredients, different presentation). One of the best takes can be found across the iconic Trenton-Morrisville Bridge at Sam’s Cold Take Out in Morrisville, PA. Go figure.
Though the Newark Italian Hot Dog might be the more distinctive foodigenous, it’s next to impossible to find a good one outside the ten mile radius surrounding Newark. Maybe it’s because there’s less specialization required, or maybe it’s because the composition is more intuitive, but for whatever reason the Trenton style Italian Hot Dog is the more regionally pervasive, ubiquitous, and diffuse foodigenous. And that’s gotta count for something.
As to which one is the real deal? It just may be that no one from New Jersey can say.
Move over Abe Froman, follow guest blogger Mark NP, the real sausage king as he showcases his favorite, iconic hot dog joints and sausage stands on his Facebook page I NEVER SAUSAGE A HOT DOG!