Stretch's Chicken Savoy
Updated: Dec 31, 2021
I’ve heard rumors of a time capsule hidden somewhere near the Nutley, Belleville and Newark border. Apparently a souped up, cherry red Chevy IROC with freshly waxed tires and a George Lamond cassette still in the stereo was buried to preserve the area’s culture of the early 1990s. Tucked inside the car was a blue striped Sergio Tacchini tracksuit, tanning goggles, a bottle of Obsession cologne and a pair of size 9 black buckle shoes from Wild Pair. A box of mini sfogliatella, a loaf of semolina bread from Giordano’s Bakery and Stretch Verdichhio’s Chicken Savoy recipe handwritten on the back of a Belmont Tavern menu was thrown through the T-Tops just before it was covered with mounds of Garden State soil. 170 years in the future, when this historic cache is unearthed, anthropologists will confirm Essex County as the birthplace of guido culture.
Cut to: Staten Island rolling their eyes
A lot has changed to the area since then and while it’s still possible to see the occasional Bobby Bacala or Snooki walking around town, you are much more likely to hear Spanish spoken than any dialect from the “old country”. Giordano’s shuttered their windows, the popular Italian Tribune newspaper relocated their offices down the way and unfortunately Stretch is no longer with us, but his recipes live on at The Belmont Tavern.
Some Things Never Change
The Belmont Tavern is a living breathing time capsule. Inside an unassuming brick faced building on Bloomfield Avenue time stands still. As soon as you open the door, Frank Sinatra, or is it Deano, croons from a well-used jukebox as diners cram around the small bar waiting for their table. The vertical wood panel walls are plastered with pictures of mostly Italian celebrities and athletes who’ve all broken bread there. And the dining room’s red and white checkered tables are filled with locals and families that have been eating at this red sauce joint since they opened in 1967. But you don’t go to the Belmont for red sauce, you go for the Chicken Savoy. You go for the Shrimp Beeps and the Cavatelli with Pot Cheese. You go to dine in a different era. And if you are lucky, you’ll catch one of the old school waitresses in a sassy mood that day, think Judge Janine Pirro mixed with a little Flo from Mel’s diner.
Pro Tip: Don’t bother asking her for a wine list. They have a house red.
What About the Food?
The charismatic Stretch, and his partner Helen, were the original chefs and owners of the “kitchen” portion of the Belmont. A decades old handshake still in agreement separates ownership between the Cuomo Family who run the bar and the back of the house, which Helen's daughter Annette and granddaughter Kim still run. Stretch introduced the world to Chicken Savoy; a combination of generously salted and peppered breasts and thighs rubbed with olive oil, Italian herbs & garlic cooked at a very high temperature and is finished with a dousing of red wine vinegar that perfumes the entire restaurant. Pair that with the Cavatelli and Pot Cheese (Newarkease for Ricotta) and a plate of their Famous Shrimp Beeps; lightly battered shrimp sautéed in a zesty red sauce and you have yourself a dinner for the ages. Heck, better get the Chicken Murphy while you’re at it, a plate of bone-in chicken, steamed beneath a pile of hot peppers, onions and herb roasted potatoes with just enough kick to moisten your upper lip.
Often Imitated, Never Duplicated
Less than 5 miles down the road in Verona, it's impossible to drive by Miele's Restaurant without noticing "Stretch's Chicken" in white lettering on a red sign tagged on the outside wall. Now I'm not one to gossip, but from what I understand, at some point, Stretch's son Peter sold a few of his father's recipes to the Amadeo family who proudly promote Stretch's Shrimp Beeps, Chicken Savoy and they even named a salad after him. While I don't detect a feud, let's just say the Belmont doesn't speak about Miele's and vice versa. It should be noted, as I've tried both, while there are some obvious similarities with the dishes, they are different. Miele's has been in business since 1954 and has some very good authentic dishes of their own and is worth the trip.
Despite rumors of Belmont having trademarked "Chicken Savoy", many other restaurants in the area are known for their own versions. Three Guys From Italy in Kenilworth has been making their Chicken Savoia for over 30 years and in Caldwell, Forte's Pizzeria sells Chicken Savoy pizza topped with garlic, balsamic vinegar, vinegar peppers and mozzarella. Outside of Essex County and bordering Union County, Chicken Savoy is little known.
I said it once and I'll say it again. If you are from New Jersey, visiting the Belmont Tavern is a rite of passage, no different than seeing Bruce or Bon Jovi in concert. So, dig deep into your closest, dust of that pair of Z Cavaricci's, spray your hair with some Aqua Net and get your ass down to Belleville to try the original. And if you drink a little too much Sambuca, give me a call. I'll pick you up and maybe we can look for the IROC together.
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