Pizza, spaghetti with marinara sauce, lasagna, eggplant parmigiana – all standard items you’d expect to find on most Italian restaurant menus. But at Spirito’s, a neighborhood eatery in Elizabeth, New Jersey, these dishes are part of an on-going, inter-generational feast.
Spirito’s opened in 1932. Seventy-seven years later, the business is still run by the Spirito family, and descendants of the original customers continue to patronize the place. The restaurant occupies a nondescript stone building on the corner of 3rd Avenue and High Street, a neighborhood of busy, narrow streets and not nearly enough parking. The bar’s in front; dining room is in back. It’s a no-frills kind of place, clean enough and featuring wood paneling and green-painted booths. Hanging on the walls, framed photos and newspaper reviews and articles celebrate the histories of the Spirito family and the restaurant.
My maternal grandparents introduced me to Spirito’s when I was a youngster. We always started with a cold antipasto, featuring celery, peppers, olives, cheeses and meats. Next came the “pizza pie” (as Grandpa always called it), a cheese pie with lots of tomato sauce and a very thin, crispy crust (what Garden Staters call a “bar pie”). The main courses followed. I can still remember the ravioli – large plump pasta pillows with a feather-light and creamy cheese filling. And the eggplant – wow, my mouth is watering as I write this.
The restaurant does have it quirks. Plenty of bread, but no butter. Soda is served by the pitcher, but you can only buy beer by the bottle. No coffee. And if you want desert you can stroll on down to the Italian ice stand at the other end of the street. But hey, these are the things that give Spirito’s its charm – like the wait staff.
The waitresses were, and still are, fantastic. I’ve heard them described as gruff – but to me they’re pure “Jersey” – friendly, no-nonsense ladies who also happen to have great memories. They never write down an order and they never make a mistake. In fact, years after my grandfather and grandmother moved from Elizabeth and my grandfather had died, I remember going to Spirito’s with my grandmother and finding a waitress who remembered them both.
Memories, I think, even more than the food, are what make this place so special. On a recent trip to New Jersey, I returned to Spirito’s for the first time in two decades and enjoyed a meal with my mom, two of my brothers, my sister-in-law, two nieces and a nephew. Nothing about the place had changed – and that was a good thing. I was happy to see a new generation of our family enjoying the same dishes I savored as a kid. And as I worked my way through the antipasto, the “pizza pie” and my eggplant, the tastes brought with them memories of happy times with my mom, grandparents and brothers around these very same tables. We were all part of a wonderful continuity – a very tasty legacy, if you will.
As we got up to leave, I told my mom that, while we had three generations gathered around our table, I’d felt as if my Grandma and Grandpa had joined us as well. Mom nodded and smiled. She’d felt their presence, too.