Nestled and unexpected in the middle of a completely residential block in Jersey City, rests Laico’s, a small Italian restaurant, hosting a bar and around fifteen tables. You almost stumble on the valet parking surrounded by homes and driveways. At first glance the façade almost blends into the cityscape, but then the awning is spotted, something different from the long line of residential homes. The awning covering the doorway, felt old school and dated; a decadence that is almost out of style.
The interior décor was old and heavy, wooden and stone. Plastic plants were also strewn throughout the restaurant, only emphasizing how outdated the decorating was. In a way though, these details felt classic, how you imagine many older Italian restaurants would look, like from the movies. They spoke of luxury, just like the valet parking on the residential block, lifting the importance of every patron.
It was a noisy Saturday night in the first room with tables and the bar, so we opted for the quiet room in the back. The front room was jumping, a birthday party or some kind of celebration was taking place, so there was drinking and ringing laughter. Three or four steps down was the quieter back room, just a family and a couple on a date. We sat at a table set for four close to the swinging door of the kitchen and the server station. The traffic wasn’t excessive, and neither was the noise. Light shone through a stained glass window with “Laico’s” in cursive, reminding us where we were, another out of date touch.
After seating ourselves we were given the specials menu and the regular menu— jammed packed with all the Italian favorites one would expect. It had pastas with a wide variety of toppings and sauces, as well as meat main courses served with the daily vegetable or a side of pasta. Typical old school Italian. I was imagining the lengthy menu as heavy portions and lots of sauce, heaping bowls of steaming pasta, and cheese for days.
After making the mistake of asking for more time, as the waitress made her rounds in the small dinning room and finally came back, we ordered. I chose my dish from the specials menu and my date picked form their everyday fare.
Laico’s seems like the kind of restaurant where the clientele and the wait staff become a family, like a restaurant full of regulars. It also felt like the kind of place where the waitresses and waiters work for a very long time, getting used to the crowd and becoming familiar faces. The few I saw there that Saturday night were like career waiters, very familiar with the trade, and have probably worked for Laico’s for years. Though everything was mechanic and ritualized, each table got just the right amount of attention.
We were given warm bread—delicious, airy yet dense, hearty and hot—a great indicator of what was to come. A house salad came shortly after, bland and almost superfluous. The salad was large and decorated with tomatoes, red onions and lots of salad dressing. We ended up using the salad almost as a pallet cleanser in between the appetizer and the entrées.
For an appetizer we picked a polenta starter, which was, pan-fried crisp and smothered in a sweet and savory creamy Marsala sauce and earthy mushrooms. The inner texture of the polenta was drier and more crumbly than expected, but the sauce held it all together—smooth and meaty countering the grain of the polenta. It was a decent sized appetizer, perfect to appease two bellies until the entrees arrived.
I ordered the cockles, mussels, sausage spinach and linguine served with a white clam sauce, which was one of the day’s specials. What was placed in front of me was a garden of shells filled with perfectly cooked seafood, and it was enormous. Taking all of the succulent meats out of their strewn shells proved to be a task but well worth it. The linguine was cooked to a nice al dente and drenched in a buttery white wine sauce. Though it was not bursting with flavors, it allowed for the admiration of the seafood and the rustic sautéed spinach and the salty sliced sausages. I enjoyed the marriage of the light seafood with the more substantial sausage and the earthy spinach. Initially the balance was lovely and the varied textures created interest, but eventually the butter and salt beat out the seafood and even the pasta couldn’t mask it. At the end, I opted for finishing up the scrumptious seafood, rather than wasting space on the not so special pasta.
My date ordered a chicken and shrimp parmesan combination, with a side of spaghetti. The dish only really looked like two heaps of red sauce, the other ingredients hidden, with a little floating side dish of pasta with the most basic of sauces on top. The portion was definitely not as large as we were expecting, especially since it was a combo, and the taste was ok. Some of the chicken breading was a little burnt, which ruined some bites, with the acrid taste. There were only a few shrimp, not even enough to get a taste for the quality or technique. The side pasta, as it is most times, was nothing special, but necessary since the combo was small. This combination was kind of ordinary and it was not even filling. The flavors were monotone, but the chicken and shrimp both felt like good quality ingredients.
After our plates were cleared away and we looked over the dessert menu, it was a while before our waitress found her way back to us. She got involved in a lengthy conversation with a group at another table, clearly regulars that were aware of her life and circumstances. We were able to overhear most of it at our table, unfortunately.
While waiting for the Italian poundcake and cappuccino we ordered, we were also privy to another conversation I wish we didn’t overhear. It was our waitress and another waiter discussing tips, expressing their disappointment in how the people were tipping that evening. I felt like that was a very inappropriate conversation to be having in earshot of patrons, just as a mark of lack of professionalism. It really turned me off.
The poundcake, also was a turn off. It was warm, served with ice cream topped with some chocolate drizzle and whipped cream, but the cake was floury in the mouth. It felt dry and course, almost like it was overworked in the kitchen. The dessert definitely left dinner at a low note for me, as well as wondering when leaving the restaurant if our tip was to the satisfaction of our waitress.
Even though Laico’s in some ways felt out of style, its traditional atmosphere and food are disappearing. I would definitely like to try some of the other items on the menu, as the list goes on and on of delicious potential. It is a place I would go back to when I am longing for simple classic Italian, rustic atmosphere, and a long lost luxury.