Only the retro signage of the former Fenny’s Pharmacy connects Porta (135 Newark Avenue, Jersey City; 201-544-5199) to the building’s longtime former occupant. Over the past year and a half, the single-story drugstore and its clutter of outmoded backroom doctor’s offices have been gutted to make way for a block-deep outpost of the popular Asbury Park pizza bar, which here stretches to Christopher Columbus Drive, and rises upward from a basement bar to a second-story roof deck that will boast a bocce court come spring.
And even though Porta is now the third pizzeria to open on a single block of Newark Avenue — following Roman Nose and Two Boots, which is right next door — its late promotion of a soft opening the night before Thanksgiving drew such a packed house (including the mayor and his entourage), the kitchen fired more than 600 soppressata and grape-and-rosemary pizzas from a single oven before winding down after midnight.
That volume was no problem for executive chef Chris Calabrese, who remembers the trial by fire of his first weekend in Asbury Park. “I had no experience in pizza,” he says. “I got quick training; the volume was insane. It was Memorial Day weekend, my first weekend there, and we broke the pizza record that day. I couldn’t think straight, but it was all downhill from there.”
Calabrese’s early training came from a graphic designer at SMITH, the Asbury Park branding firm turned hospitality group behind Porta and a half-dozen other New Jersey restaurants. “Our creative director decided to learn to make pizzas,” SMITH brand director Mark Hinchliffe recalls. “She trained under Roberto at Keste, and was certified in Neapolitan pizza-making, then she trained everyone in Neapolitan pizza-making.”
Calabrese will have the benefit not just of training but a second Forni oven burning at 900 degrees. He’ll also be manning a wood-burning grill, a feature unique to the Jersey City location, where he’ll bring smoke and char to revolving specials focused on Niman Ranch beef locally sourced from Jersey City’s DeBragga.
While Calabrese settles in to his new location, SMITH is already eyeing further expansion throughout the state and across the Hudson.
“Most of our restaurants are focused in Asbury Park — Brick Wall, Pascal & Sabine, Porta,” Hinchliffe says, rattling off the group’s successes. “But we’re looking at Burlington…which we see as the next Asbury Park, and have acquired a few buildings down there. We entered a proposal to open a restaurant at a beach club in Allenhurst, and we’re opening another restaurant in the former Goldie’s space in Asbury Park next month.”
Goldie’s, a vegan venture in Asbury Park, was a moonshot for the team, but even that’s due for a revival. “We’re looking to move Goldie’s to New York City in the next year, year and a half.”