Porto by Antonio ***Excellent
The two must-order dishes at Porto by Antonio in North Bergen? Stuffed pizza and fried pizza.
Raffaelo Marchello bakes pizzas in the wood burning oven at Porto by Antonio in North Bergen.
Sure, this sounds suspiciously like a place intent on destroying pizza as we know it. But Porto, a small, 16-month-old restaurant tucked away right off River Road mere feet from Edgewater, couldn’t take its pizzas more seriously.
Its owner, Antonio Dinis, a former pizza maker at the acclaimed Manhattan Neapolitan pizzerias Keste and Don Antonio by Starita as well as A Mano in Ridgewood, makes his own dough from delicate flour imported from Naples and slowly ferments it for a deep flavor. Then he covers it with his house-made mozzarella and blasts the pies for 90 seconds in his domed turquoise oven, also imported from Naples, until they have the most gorgeous blistered crust.
His basic 12-inch Neapolitan pies are stellar — in particular, the super-rich pizza smothered in pistachio pesto and draped with paper-thin slices of the Italian pork cold-cut mortadella ($23) is worth a try. But his stuffed Vesuvio and the fried montanara are unforgettable.
To make the Vesuvio ($22), Dinis stuffs that delectable crust with mozzarella, fresh ricotta and the Italian sausage soppressata, and tops the pie with more mozzarella, grana padano and tomato sauce. When put in the 850-degree oven, the crust puffs up and vents, much like the famous volcano, Mount Vesuvius.
The montanara — a traditional Naples pizza whose dough is lightly fried before being topped and finished in the oven — made its debut in the New York area about five years ago at a handful of places that included Don Antonio. It’s still relatively rare in this region, and this is a great place to order it: I found it less heavy than other versions I’ve tried and more subtly rich, with an almost buttery crust topped with roasted tomato sauce and imported buffalo mozzarella ($13).
There is often a wait for one of Porto’s 38 metal seats in a dim, atmospheric, brick-walled room filled with dramatic modern art and antiques that sit on shelves next to huge jars of Nutella. And there’s no ample waiting area, so consider coming here early on a weeknight. Reservations are accepted only for parties of six or more, and both times I visited, only seats near the entrance were available and were a little chilly. I do recommend counter seats in front of the pizza oven, though, with a great view of the busy pizziolos.
This is not the restaurant for anyone who prizes friendly service – the generally informed wait staff had a standoffish attitude that I occasionally see at very popular restaurants where customers should just feel lucky to get a seat. There’s also no lot, and parking can be challenging, though the staff insists you can park after 4 p.m. in a no-parking zone across the street.
This is the restaurant for those willing to put up with all of the above because the food is so good. I dropped by at the suggestion of two highly discriminating eaters impressed with their meals at Porto – Cresskill resident Gregory Brainin, the director of culinary development for venerated chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and Cliffside Park cookbook author Lisa Oz, the wife of celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz. Business in North Bergen is so good that Dinis plans to open a second location in Livingston this summer.
One dish that deserves a wide following is pappardelle, a wide pasta that Dinis makes himself at a friend’s deli in Totowa, smothered with a creamy pesto that’s made to order, resulting in a fresh, delightfully grassy flavor ($15). Ditto for an appetizer of well-seasoned, pan-fried eggplant layered with mozzarella and far better (imported) tomatoes than any of us have the right to expect in January ($13). Then there’s the fat coil of Portuguese sausage set atop a clay pig-shaped dish and served set afire with a dab of Everclear liquor ($12). It would be worth ordering just for dramatic effect, though the sausage itself is a zesty, porky treat despite – or maybe because of? – the huge fat chunks in the sausage ($12).
Porto also offers an excellent, shareable antipasto platter with house-made bread ($22); we tried a kale Caesar salad that would have been great if it hadn’t been so soggy ($12).
Nutella is a big theme in dessert — we enjoyed it drizzled over zeppoles, the round Italian doughnuts ($9.95); there’s also a pizza topped with it ($12.95). And maybe it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the same restaurant that does wonders with both stuffed and fried pizzas puts out a delicious fried Oreo cookie, with a wonderful cakey batter ($9.95), that tastes so much more elegant than it sounds.