RESTAURANT CORTO, JERSEY CITY HEIGHTS
One of the most authentic Italian restaurants in America serves peasant food
During an exploration of my new neighborhood, Jersey City Heights, the latest trans-New York City area being gentrified, I came across a nondescript storefront with a creamy off-white exterior. Hanging in one of the two oversized windows was only an 8.5-inch-by-11-inch piece of paper, a menu. The door, set back a few feet, has five letters in a font that reminded me of the Genco Olive Oil Company: CORTO, which is Italian for “short”.
Corto is certainly not short on serving authentic and simple Italian food. Corto’s draw is cucina provera, or poor kitchen, serving “peasant” dishes on an ever-rotating seasonal menu that typically have no more than five ingredients – and whatever number of ingredients are in the dish are really, really, really good. There’s no molecular gastronomy here so don’t bother going for organic huckleberry truffle jam topped with Himalayan salt-cured foam. Sure, there might be a time and a place to enjoy such a jam, but Corto epitomizes what dining out should be: just delicious and fresh food, lovely hospitality without an ounce of pretentiousness…and perfect lighting.
Corto, which is BYOB, opened in May 2018 by Drew Buzzio, Marc Magliozzi, Peter Fontana and Matthew Moschella. Drew’s family owns the legendary charcuterie company Salumeria Biellese, based locally in Hackensack and its namesake deli in New York, which has been around since 1925, and Birichino restaurant, which is connected to the deli. Marc is the owner of the wonderful pizzeria Dozzino in neighboring Hoboken. Peter is Marc’s cousin. All of their families are from different regions of Italy. Lastly, Matt is the executive chef and the owner of a sweet Magnum P.I. mustache. He has worked his way up the ranks including being a line cook for Daniel Boulud.
Within months of opening, Corto received much praise including the accolade as one of the best new restaurants in the Garden State by New Jersey Monthly. After dining there a half dozen times, Corto’s become our go-to neighborhood spot.
The menu, which has a slight change to it every time we’ve been, always has five appetizers, five pastas that are made in house, and three entrees – the Angry Chicken is a mainstay, along with a pork or lamb, and a fish.
To start, we always get a meat and cheese platter, mainly to stop our son from eating everything else we ordered. My favorite is the spicy finocchiona. The asparagus with lemon, pecorino romano, breadcrumbs and bottarga works also as a side dish. My favorite dish, which I would request as part of a last meal, is the Ricotta and Honey Toast, six glorious pieces of filone bread covered in the fluffiest ricotta, wildflower honey, olive oil, sea salt and pink pepper. We had the bruschetta once. The tomatoes are out of this world, from Sicily actually, but it just needed a pinch of salt. And how can you go wrong with a plate of mozzarella and prosciutto? This pairing never fails.
On the pasta front, you must carb up with the Malfadini (speck, grana Padano cheese, black pepper), Gnocchetti Sardi (ceci, rosemary, garlic, bianco di napoli tomato, pecorino romano, breadcrumb) and the Spaghetti (anchovy, garlic, caper, peperoncini, breadcrumb, colatura, which is similar to an Asian fish sauce).
We’ve enjoyed the fluke with salsa verde, a pork chop with broccoli rabe, a pork shoulder that pulls apart so easily with creamy polenta, even a roasted leg of lamb with saba, or cooked grape juice. But it’s the Angry Chicken that is the perennial entrée. This juicy bird is made with villagio Marzano tomatoes, garlic, guanciale, thyme, chianti and dried Calabrian chili.
For dessert, there’s usually one or two choices, and if it’s a cake, it’s made onsite. The lemon ricotta cheesecake was a bit dry, but Corto makes up for that with their ultra-moist olive oil cake. So, I’ve heard. Our son doesn’t let any fork within two feet of the plate.
The entire staff is marvelous and gives off wonderful energy. They’ll walk you through the menu and regale you with tales of how their chicken comes from a farm in Pennsylvania then brought to The Heights for you to enjoy. The tomatoes are from the volcanic terroirs of Palermo; the ridiculous ricotta is also from Pennsylvania; the cured meats from Salumeria Biellese.
Even the décor is simple, yet has the perfect combination of high / low. In front of the open kitchen is a counter for walk-ins. One wall – these are the original tin walls – is covered with family photos. There are a few shelves with cookbooks and products, and an antique wine press in a corner. The wooden tables, including two communal ones, are custom made by Waited Collective in Pennsylvania and the plates and bowls that are on display and used are made by local artist Jono Pandolfi, who caters to this country’s top restaurants like Eleven Madison Park and Girl & The Goat. The outdoor space has the kind of furniture you’d find at a city park and the towel napkins are from Ikea.
The lighting at Corto is always perfect. It’s a pet peeve of mine to dine in a restaurant that comes across as never having paid their electric bill. Also, the restaurant faces east so there’s tremendous natural progression of dimming light during dinner that adds to the ambiance.
Your bill is handwritten a la a diner. This definitely harkens the days of yore, but when it’s time to actually pay, the 21st century interferes. Your server comes tableside with a tablet to run your credit card. This feels a bit impersonable, but I just heard Corto has an octopus dish with borlotti beans, leek, pancetta and peperoncino, so, I shall return…shortly.
507 Palisade Avenue
Jersey City, NJ 07307
201 420 6290