By: Megan McGaha
Chewy, cheesy, delicious pizza is a staple in American cuisine today, but pizza has a long and rich history, and it’s come a long way. Pizza has been around since 6th Century B.C., when soldiers “baked a kind of bread flat upon their shields and then covered it with cheese and dates,” according to “Pizza- History and Legends of Pizza,” an article on whatscookingamerica.net.
This first pizza did not include tomato sauce, and in fact that sauce that modern Americans consider characteristic of pizza did not appear until 1522, when tomatoes were brought back to Europe from Peru.
People initially thought tomatoes were poisonous, but “later the poorer people of Naples added the new tomatoes to their yeast dough and created the first simple pizza, as we know it,” according to the article. “They usually had only flour, olive oil, lard, cheese, and herbs with which to feed their families.”
Pizza came to America in 1895, when Gennaro Lombardi, a 14 year-old-baker, emigrated from Naples, Italy, to New York City in what would become Little Italy. He made pizza for a bakery and grocery store on Mulberry St., using his father’s recipes. He bought the grocery store in 1905, but quickly realized the future “was made of pizza.”
“The first American pizzas were known as Tomato Pie. Even in the present 21st century, present-day tomato pie is most commonly found in the Northeastern United States, especially in Italian bakeries in central New York,” according to the article. “Tomato pies are built the opposite of pizza pies – first the cheese, then the toppings, and then the sauce.”
“Gennaro Lombardi is credited to having opened the first United States Pizzeria in New York City at 53 1/2 Spring Street (now known as Little Italy)… It wasn’t until the early 1930s that he added tables and chairs and sold spaghetti as well,” according to the article. “A downturn in the economy forced it to close its doors in 1984.”
But within that time, pizza had already spread; including to New Jersey. Tomato pies started to be sold out of Trenton as early as 1910. Mt. Olive is no exception.
Dino’s Pizza located in the Village Green in Budd Lake opened in June of 1975, and is being run by Gino Dimeo.
Dimeo said he got started with pizza when the son of the owners of the Village Green was going to New York University (NYU) and his older brother had a pizza shop near NYU.
“We wanted to move from the city to the country,” said Dimoe. “We’re originally from Brooklyn, and before that, Italy.”
Claude Branda operates Branda’s Italian Grill, located at 1 Mt Olive Rd, Budd Lake which has been open for the past 17 years.
Branda said he chose to open his business in the Mt. Olive area back in 2001 because it was a “great up & coming area for families in 2000.”
Anthony Schianodicola and partner Joe Penza, who also started the business in the early 2000’s, have run Frank’s Pizza located in the Mall at 206 in Flanders since 2000. Before taking over, the restaurant was in operation since 1969.
“Our restaurant was established in 1969; it’s the original Frank’s Pizza,” said Schianodicola. “My partner Joe Penza and I started our own journey in July ‘00. We are about to celebrate our ‘first’ 18 years in business!”
Schianodicola explained that he was drawn to the idea to build something important in Mt. Olive.
“After years in the business, we were looking to finally have our own thing,
our own restaurant where we could express our passion in making food,” said Schianodicola.
He and Penza settled on Frank’s Pizza, as they had years of experience in the business.
“After years looking for the right spot, a friend of a friend of another friend told us about this location,” he said. “When we came to ‘explore’ the area, we fell in love with idea to build something important here. It was just the right place and the right time to finally take that big step. A move the made our dreams come true and gave us the chance to build our families in a safe and healthy environment.”
Enzo’s Pizza in Budd Lake at 382 U.S. 46 was purchased by Emilio and Assunta Buonincontri and family in 1976. The great depression led the Buonincontris away from their hometown of Pouzzuoli, Italy, to Brooklyn, N.Y. in 1969. Emilio worked in the construction business in Brooklyn, but after falling from a three story building, he decided to follow his passion for fine cuisine and purchased Enzo’s Pizza. His son Ernesto eventually took over and has shared the business with his son, also named Emilio.
“The day they opened the doors Ernesto knew it would change his and his family’s life forever,” says Ernesto’s son, Emilio Buonincontri, who has now taken on the role to assist Ernesto in continuously delivering to the Mt. Olive community.
“Mt. Olive during that time was incredibly popular, and people found this area to be a vacation spot,” he said. “With a few different locations bought from Ernesto’s father, Mt. Olive, NJ has been the location that has lasted the longest. Mt. Olive has come such a long way and the growth that is taking place within this town is so exciting to see. We are beyond thankful that this is where our foundation was created.”
Uncle Sal’s Pizza at 375 Rt. 36 Budd Lake has been open since 2006. Owner Benny Mejia purchased the business as its previous owner was also a pizza/Italian restaurant.
Mejia uses fresh ingredients, along with special family recipes to create the tastiest dishes.
Whether it’s dine in, take out or catering, customers can enjoy pizza, pasta, seafood and favorite chicken dishes.
Different pizzas from traditional to pan to stuffed, with a whole slew of toppings and sizes, are made to order. A variety of calzones, subs and Paninis offer a wide selection along with favorite dishes like chicken marsala, penne vodka and eggplant parm.
The different pizzerias all take a similar approach to making great pizza. They all agree that great pizza starts with great ingredients.
For Dino’s Pizza, the emphasis is on the sauce and the cheese.
“Good quality tomato, sweetness of tomato and good quality mozzarella cheese. Put them together and you get a great pizza.”
For Branda, consideration for the pizza at Branda’s Italian Grill starts at the ingredients.
He said the most important step in making pizza is starting with the best ingredients, and they set themselves apart from the competition by listening to their customers.
“We always strive to do better and never stop learning by listening to our customers,” said Branda.
Dimeo said Dino’s stands out because of the quality of their products.
“Quality of product that we use, we always try to buy the best tomatoes, the best cheese, the meat the veal, you know every product has many different variations from different grades of chicken, there’s not just one out there. We always strive to buy the better product and I think at the end people know the difference.”
Schianodicola said since taking over, the emphasis at their restaurant has also been on choosing great ingredients.
“Of course, choosing the best mozzarella cheese on the market, together with imported Italian tomatoes is a must,” said Schianodicola. “But what I strongly believe makes the difference is the water! And we are lucky to have a great one in Mt. Olive.”
Branda agreed, noting that their restaurant uses well water.
“We are in well and the water being high in minerals is very good for pizza!”
Dimeo also stressed the importance of the water quality.
“To be honest, I’m not really sure [how the water in Mt. Olive contributes to the quality of the pizza], but it’s gotta be all those chemicals in NJ water,” said Dimeo. “It’s something scientific in the water that I cannot explain to you. But it’s very important.”
At Enzos, “The secret to a perfect pizza is combining quality ingredients with attention to details!” said Buonincontri. “From the dough, to the sauce it is all homemade. Don’t forget, the pizza being made has come from the same hard working hands for the past four decades. Like any recipe the secret ingredient is the love that is put into creating the dish.”
He too agrees that quality water plays a part.
“Being that everything on the menu is homemade, it assures us that the quality of our food will always deliver to be the best, said Buonincontri. “When cooking day in and day out it’s so crucial that every ingredient lives up to its expectation. The water is incredibly significant!”
Dimeo said Dino’s most popular dishes include their award winning Buffalo Chicken Pizza, Pasta, and some of the salads that they make.
“There’s a lot of different products that we sell a lot of,” said Dimeo. “We won an award for the Buffalo Chicken Pizza from the Mt. Olive Rotary Club and the other from the Kiwanis Club.”
Branda said some of the most popular dishes at Branda’s Italian Grill include: “Eggplant Rollatini, Penne Vodka, and all our salads with our homemade dressings.”
Schianodicola said some of the more popular items at Frank’s Pizza include the “Grandma’s” Pizza, Chicken Francese, and the Vodka sauce, along with other items.
“But I would say the one I just mentioned are the most appreciated,” said Schianodicola.
The staff at Frank’s Pizza pride themselves in their work.
“The restaurant business is a tough one, with big corporations making their way through, it’s not easy for small business owners like us to compete,” said Schianodicola. “But one thing that corporations will never have it’s the heart and soul that everyday we put in our work.”
Enzos is mostly known for its pizza.
“We have a delicious pizza menu,” said Buonincontri. “We are so incredibly creative when it comes to our pizza’s and even our weekly dinner specials. We make an amazing Amalfi Pizza that comes with seafood. As well as a wonderful Tuscany Pizza that comes with Fresh Italian Meats. But then we also have delicious weekly dinner specials that our wonderful Chef Vincy creates all on her own!
“As far as most popular item on the menu, you can never go wrong with our homemade tomato sauce or even our delicious Della Nonna Pizza. Crispy, thin, Sicilian with homemade marinara sauce,” said Buonincontri. “Even our homemade desserts are popular! Like the Calzonolies, Small Fried Calzones stuffed with Nutella and cannoli cream.
“You truly can’t go wrong with anything on the menu, it’s all homemade!”
All of the restaurants also participate in the local community.
Dino’s gives pasta when the team plays in town, and they also assist with donations or anything else the local students need.
“A while back it was wrestling. We provide food, donations, whatever we can help with,” said Dimeo. “We try to contribute for the different kids.”
Branda said they support the community by “always sponsoring local athletics and civil savants.”
Schianodicola said they also try to actively participate to the community life.
“Sponsoring town events and sports night at the restaurant are for us one the best vehicles to get our name out there.”
They also let the local teams pick a night to promote themselves at the restaurant.
“Different teams pick a night at Frank’s to promote themselves, and for every customer that comes in showing their support, we give a 10 percent of the sales to the team.”
Schianodicola expressed gratitude toward the local community, including the health department.
“We are proud to serve our customers and happy to live in Mt. Olive,” said Schianodicola. “I would also like to take this opportunity to thank the health department of Mt. Olive. They really do an outstanding job and take the well being of the community seriously. They are definitely a huge help in keeping the Mt. Olive food businesses safe, and that is the foundation for success.”
Branda added, “Thank you to all our loyal customers who have made our jobs rewarding and for allowing us to service them all these years!”
Buonincontri said “Enzo’s never turns down ways to help the local community.
Ernesto’s service to the community does not have the marketing or recognition that most business-owners would expect from “giving back,” often times it is a simple gesture from the heart. A free meal to a family in need, feeding seniors with no family during the holiday, sending a meal to a customer overcoming an illness, providing a discount to a customer just to assure that they can host a celebration at the restaurant, sponsoring local sports teams, hosting local community clubs and even hosting weekly youth sport lunches. Enzo’s has always been part of the community and we continue to support in any way that we can.”
Enzo’s foundation was built on family.
“Enzo’s is more than just an Italian restaurant,” said Buonincontri. “It has been created from the ground up on the value of family, love and tradition. Alongside Ernesto is his wife Vincy, the head chef and mastermind behind many of the recent additions to the restaurant. Together they give more love to the community than it can often handle…they place other people’s interests first.”
While Enzo’s changed “a lot” during the past 40+ years, “we always maintained our foundation,” said Buonincontri. We have been built on the value of friendship, family and authenticity. You may ask anyone that you know in the area and they will all say the same thing: ‘When you go to Enzo’s you get treated like family.’ You can’t find that everywhere and that’s what makes us, us! We value each and every individual that comes into our family owned restaurant and we ensure that the love we give our customers is the same love we put into our food.”
Vincenzo’s Pizzeria, Valentino’s Pizza, Frank’s Pizza in Hackettstown, were also contacted for participation in this article but either did not comment in time.”