There’s a palpable sense of optimism in the sea breeze of the summer dining scene at the Jersey Shore this season. And I’m not talking about the blockbuster projects or glitzy casino debuts that often marked the years before the pandemic. This summer’s crop has a more intimate vibe, a sense of personal passions finally being realized. And so I couldn’t help but smile as 2020′s pop-up hit grew into a lovely new restaurant with a beachside perch off the Avalon boardwalk. Or as Long Beach Island found two artisans obsessed with upgrading the island’s pizza and barbecue moves. I found a surprising trip to the Greek islands in Wildwood and a back-to-the-future blast of two Ventnor landmarks in the midst of revival. After the most difficult year, it was just what we needed: a summer menu serving a fresh taste of hope.
Summer Salt | Avalon
Heather Sedlacek and Connor Dore had talked themselves out of running a restaurant for the logical reasons. Low margins. The short season. Two successful summers running Summer Salt as a pop-up. Their busy double lives as chicken farmers.
But then they saw this magical space — a breezy boardwalk porch overlooking the dunes of Avalon — and Sedlacek says, “We knew it was in our hearts.”
I felt the magnetic pull, too, as we settled in beneath glowing string lights at dusk while the ocean waves pulsed nearby and the salt air perked our appetites just as first plates of our meal appeared. Fresh-dug and lightly pickled roots from nearby Stone Circle Farm came as crudité with carrot top pesto (no waste here!). Tender beets and snappy candied pecans were tucked inside butter leaves beneath creamy clouds of whipped goat and sheep’s milk cheese. Briny middelnecks crackled beneath breadcrumb crusts with salsa verde. Chicken wings, in honor of Father’s Day, were tinted amber with smoke and shined with the honeyed tang of Durham-born chef Dore’s “Carolina agrodolce.”
Summer Salt’s $75 multicourse menu is a smart approach to streamline this new BYOB, keeping the lean staff focused on warm hospitality for its 50-plus seats, and allowing the kitchen to do justice to its pristine local ingredients. I’ve not eaten many chickens more succulent than the plump birds Sedlacek raises at Bayleaf Farm, whose breast meat Dore renders juicy with a golden crisp over picked morsels of confit leg and crunchy smashed potatoes. The scallop entree option was also a winner, the sweetest I’ve had all year posed over butter-braised chard and green risotto sparked with rendered guanciale bits. A ripe blueberry clafouti with a crumbled cocoa Florentine from pastry chef Marla Thurman was the perfect finale.
Summer Salt will continue to evolve as the summer warms, the attached daytime market fills out with prepared foods, and this couple awaits their first child in September: “Hopefully not before Labor Day!” says Sedlacek, only half-joking. Their first restaurant is already one of this summer’s dreamiest new arrivals.
Summer Salt, 2800 Boardwalk, Avalon, 609-796-2096; summersaltavalon.com
Iron Oak Smokehouse | Beach Haven
Mike Schlabach was lost until barbecue found him. Or, rather, it was the other way around as he rolled through the smoky holy land of Texas devouring brisket during a cross-country RV trek after leaving college. Now, just a few years later, after working his way up from dishwasher to owner of a newly rehabbed Beach Haven space on Schooner’s Wharf, his new Iron Oak Smokehouse is puffing full steam ahead.
I’ll admit to skepticism that a 26-year-old Bostonian who taught himself to smoke with YouTube with a $200 starter rig might be up to running a 50-seat bayside restaurant. But Schlabach is plenty humble as he grapples with the challenges of scaling up to summer crowd volume at a moment when meat is at its most expensive and unforgiving of mistakes. But some folks just have the touch. With his massive new Hickory Pit smoker now turning out 500-pound batches of meat from its hickory and cherry wood haze, I was impressed with my first bites. The pink-edged pulled pork was moist and deeply flavorful. The brisket needed a better bark, but each prime-grade morsel melted in my mouth like beefy bliss. I mostly wished my platter was bigger. It also made me regret that Schlabach had not conveniently timed his big short ribs to be ready for my unannounced visit.
Early growing pains have been eased by family help, a cashier assist from fiancée Andrea Staples (their 5-month-old, Leo, cooing behind her), and picnic-worthy potato salad, sweet baked beans, and cornbread from Schlabach’s mom, Martha Lodge. The other key player is kitchen manager Kayla Johnson. She smokes Snake River Farms ground Wagyu for an hour, then sears it smash patty style before serving it with a thick slab of bacon and a sweet-n-spicy sauce. I never expected to do a double-take at a smokehouse burger at a fledgling barbecue joint in LBI, but it’s pretty much haunted me since.
Iron Oak Smokehouse, 325 Ninth St. Unit 23, Beach Haven, 609-991-2525; ironoaklbi.com
Libertà | Beach Haven Crest
“Seafood people are very stoic for the most part,” says C.F. Muzzgo, the son of a marina owner who, after 25 years of owning Pinky Shrimp’s Seafood Co. in Beach Haven Crest, knows his way around a “mongo combo” seafood platter — not to mention the constant difficulties of an industry dependent on a vulnerable supply chain and volatile market prices.
“But pizza people? They’re passionate. They’re energetic. Because pizza is freedom,” says Muzzgo, 51, who’s fallen deep into an obsession for creating pies and launched a pizzeria as a side business next to Pinky called Libertà — “freedom” in Italian. “I know, I know, I’ve only got three pizzas and eight toppings. How’s that freedom? But pizza gives you a blank canvas you can play with. It’s like embracing the blues of food.”
Muzzgo studied Philly pizza greats Joe Beddia and Marc Vetri but came up with his own style for this takeout-centric operation. His three-day-fermented sourdough crust has touches of tangy rye and Castle Valley’s earthy hard wheat and emerges from the 700-degree oven with enough character to withstand a short ride to either end of Long Beach Island, but also still show a little Neapolitan-style puff. Paired with a bright, naturally sweet tomato sauce and good mozzarella from Jersey’s Lioni, the $10 Americana, his simplest pie, is purist satisfaction (even with my addition of good fennel sausage). But Muzzgo isn’t averse to adding a few well-chosen toppings, like the spicy soppressata and pepperoni with ricotta that gilds his Diabla Bianca. And soon enough, when the buffalo mozzarella and hand-milled Italian tomatoes start flowing, he’ll be serving his riff on a classic Margherita, if only he can keep the thin center from getting too soupy.
“Still fine-tuning it to get the dough firm enough, and it’s a ton of work,” says Muzzgo. “But [the pizzeria] has breathed new life into me, ... a new challenge, but with an interesting upside.”
Libertà, 82nd and Long Beach Boulevard, Beach Haven Crest, 609-467-4011; lobzilla.com/liberta.html
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Santorini | Wildwood
When Florian Furxhiu and his wife, Elona, unfortunately had to cancel their honeymoon to Santorini after getting married in Albania, in 2013, he made her a promise: I’ll build Santorini for you.
He’s finally followed through, though I doubt she ever dreamed it would be at the Jersey Shore. But there it is, anchoring the Rio Grande Avenue entrance into Wildwood, where the former Backfin Blues Bar has been transformed into a sprawling taverna fantasy of Aegean blue, stone walls, and raftered ceilings. And as the plates of saganaki and roasted octopus arrived to our table on the pleasantly tented patio and the bouzouki music drowned-out the Shoobie traffic just beyond the bamboo walls, Wildwood’s Santorini worked its charms. Our server Erica Hrinko could not have been more outgoing.
This restaurant’s ode to Greece is a welcome change from the cookie-cutter Italian BYOBs operated by a dozen other Albanian restaurateurs at the Shore (”all friends of mine!” says Furxhiu, who also owns the Mexican-themed Tacodelphia on South Broad Street). The food of Albania, which neighbors Greece and Italy, is influenced by both countries along with Turkey. So many of the dishes prepared by Albanian-born chef Armando Gjana have subtle twists that remind Furxhiu of what he grew up eating at home in South Philly, where his family immigrated when he was a teen.
The roast chicken is one example not to be missed, a seemingly simple roasted leg over potatoes, but totally infused with a rosemary-lemon sauce and wood oven-crisped skin. The roasted lamb shank also uses that rustic wood-fired savor to its advantage, with an oregano-flavored gravy and rice-stuffed grape leaves inspired by Furxhiu’s grandmother. Of course, that lamb shank is $35. And the very good whole branzino is nearly $40. Supply-chain issues have spiked food costs across the country, but these prices still felt steep.
Even so, the quality was there. And so was the setting. Furxhiu still vows to someday take that belated trip to the actual Greek Isles, but eating at his Wildwood Santorini already feels like a vacation.
Santorini, 517 W. Rio Grande Ave, Wildwood, 609-551-2432; santoriniwildwood.com
Nucky’s Kitchen Speakeasy | Ventnor City
Ventnor is rightfully celebrating the rebirth of its vintage 1930s movie theater, this time with a multi-floor restaurant, liquor license, and bar themed to Prohibition-era nostalgia. And the lady at my neighboring table was dressed for it. From the rhinestone choker to her fringe-draped top, she could’ve passed for a Boardwalk Empire extra save for her lavish tattoos, a boyfriend in a Sixers tank top, and the cheesesteak egg rolls on their table. Talk about a concept with a personality complex, Nucky’s Kitchen Speakeasy has been confused from its inception.
The owners run a burger bar at Stone Harbor’s revived Harbor Square Theater and initially planned a similarly casual place for Ventnor. But the splendid brick bones of the 1938 building rightfully told them this should be grander, and they created a soaring upstairs space ready-made for destination dining, with lush draperies and bubble chandeliers dangling from 19-foot ceilings over tufted booths, Oriental rugs, and community tables. Swanky cocktails fuel the lively downstairs bar. Classic movies are projected over the kitchen wall.
But this menu, on its second chef since Memorial Day, has the flailing focus of a chain trying be too many things to too many people, from tacos to fried chicken and waffles, a loveless filet tip cheesesteak, soupy crab dip, overcooked salmon teriyaki and some ... excellent edamame ravioli?! The chef, a veteran of the closed Buddakan at Caesar’s Pier, is borrowing liberally from his former menu. Not a bad idea since I wouldn’t even order a burger here after I was told the kitchen refused to cook it medium-rare (the manager says he once had a bad experience with rare patties). The sesame-seared tuna, though? Delicious!
Nucky’s kitchen is scrambling to find itself in real time, but a complete rethinking would eventually be beneficial. Ventnor has a potential smash hit restaurant just waiting inside its new theater. But its debut showing has been underwhelming.
Nucky’s Kitchen Speakeasy, Ventnor Square Theatre, 5211 Ventnor Ave., Ventnor City, 609-289-8305; nuckyskitchen.com
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Willow’s Way Shore Refreshments | Ventnor City
Across from Ventnor’s rehabbed theater, another landmark has been revived: the building that once housed Mento’s Italian Ice. Generations of Absecon Island dessert fans revered the frozen delights of this now-closed institution, whose recipes are still carried on at North Beach Cafe & Creamery. But Mento’s building at South Victoria and Ventnor Avenues has a new operator now, too, called Willow’s Way.
“I’ve got some big shoes to fill,” concedes Ralph Pappas, a D.J. turned ice cream entrepreneur who grew up coveting Mento’s pomegranate and honeydew ices on breaks from his uncle’s AAAA bike shop next door. The now black-painted corner stand is named after his dog.
Pappas takes his dessert craft seriously, making all the ice flavors from pureed fruits and churning the ice creams and soft-serve from noticeably high butterfat dairy. I was especially impressed with the hand-dipped peanut butter cup (Pappas says blueberry cheesecake and black raspberry truffle are the popular favorites). Some ice flavors are still being dialed in (black raspberry was too faded). But I loved the vivid mango layered South Philly “gelati” style with rich, soft-serve custard. Next time, I’ll get it spicy with a Mexican drizzle of tangy Chamoy and Tajín seasoning. Willow herself, however, is a purist. The Dutch Shepherd gets a 50-cent pup cup of hand-dipped ice cream every night, Pappas says, “and she loves her vanilla.” Willow’s Way Shore Refreshments, 1 S. Victoria Ave., Ventnor City; on Instagram