The scene: On July 20, 1969, history was forever changed when Neil Armstrong stepped out of his capsule and took “One giant leap for mankind.” Fifteen days earlier, the world of hot dog lovers was similarly changed when Tommy’s Italian Sausage opened in Elizabeth, New Jersey. It’s now been a beloved local institution for half a century.
Tommy’s looks like it should be on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, or part of the midway at a state fair, but it actually sits in downtown Elizabeth, the state’s largest city – and close to Newark for anyone who is hungry and heading out of the busy airport. It occupies a corner on a short block laid out at an unusual angle to frame a triangular town green in the middle of a traffic roundabout, complete with a statue of a canon. The green space doubles as Tommy’s dining room – the entire operation is to-go and there is no other convenient place nearby to enjoy your meal. Road trippers often eat on their car hoods, but most visitors are taking food back to their home or office, like the woman in line in front of me. When I asked her what she recommended, she replied, “I’ve been coming here since I was a little girl. Today I’m having the sausage. Tomorrow I’ll get the hot dog.” Simple enough.
It’s such a part of the fabric of Elizabeth that when the local police stopped by to pick up their dogs – always a good sign to Great American Bites, as beat officers eat out every day on their own turf and are known to be selective – they simply parked the cruiser in the middle of the street in front of Tommy’s and approached the window. That’s all there is here, an open sidewalk window where you order, wait and study the signs advertising the food, most notably “Potatoes in a Cup,” which bears the largest lettering. There is a small ATM next to the window and that’s about it, but if you pay attention you can also watch the amazing process that goes on inside, the making of one of the rarest hyper-regional dishes this column has enjoyed: the New Jersey Italian-style hot dog.
Reason to visit: Italian-style hot dog or combo sandwich
The food: The Northeast is America’s hot dog capital, and the entire region is dotted with unique stylistic takes on the humble sausage. The most notable of these is the fried and blistered dog, popular in much of southwest Connecticut (Great American Bites has visited legends here such as Blackie’s, Ted’s, Woody’s and Danny’s Drive-In) and perhaps most famous at Rutt’s Hut in New Jersey (another previous stop for this column). This crisp and blistered style has gotten so much press that road-tripping foodies actively seek them out. But New Jersey, arguably the nation’s hot dog capital, has several other regional styles, one of which is the “Italian hot dog.” Culinary website Serious Eats has a recurring Hot Dog of the Week column and called this particular type the “holy grail of hot dogs,” noting that “it’s really one of the most unique hot dogs in the country.” There are only a handful of places, almost entirely limited to far eastern-central Jersey around Newark and Elizabeth, that serve it and of these, the Garden State’s preeminent website, NJ.com, called Tommy’s “Hot Dog Heaven: New Jersey’s Best Italian Hot Dog,” while Serious Eats’ verdict was “mind … officially blown.” We concur.
So what exactly is an Italian hot dog? It’s a hot dog stuffed into a very special loaf of bread – along with a dizzying mound of deep-fried potatoes, onions, peppers and condiments. But it is more than the sum of its parts, especially at Tommy’s, which is famous among fans and connoisseurs for the quality of its potatoes. It all starts with the “pizza bread,” a local specialty of Newark-area Italian bakers going back to the first half of the 20th century. When Great American Bites visited Central Grocery in New Orleans, inventor of the city’s famed muffuletta sandwich, we were told the name comes from the bread, a style of round flat roll or loaf with origins in Sicily. The immigrants who invented the muffuletta named it for the roll, and pizza bread is very similar, a flattish round loaf about a foot in diameter, which can be seen piled behind the counter at Tommy’s. One of these is cut into a huge wedge, then a hole is ripped into the exposed edge. Into this goes the sausage or sausages of choice, topped with an ample portion of sauteed onions and peppers. The next key ingredient is the fried potatoes. While some competitors go for wedges, Tommy’s uses flat discs, basically cross sections of a smaller potato, cut about an eighth of an inch thick, and deep-fried until tender but not crispy. Serious Eats called them “the most carefully made diner home fries you’ve ever had.”
The soft, slightly greasy and always freshly made, warm potatoes go on top of the onions and peppers, and with the dog(s) are shoved into the hole in the bread. There is so much potato it overflows. This is a big messy sandwich, even if you get the basic single with one hot dog. There is also a popular double, an only-for-the-bravest triple, and you can also go the sausage route instead of a hot dog, with a choice of medium and large. But despite the name of the place, the specialty here is the hot dogs, which outsell the sausages by a wide margin. That being said, the pro option is the combo, featuring a sausage and a hot dog nestled together in the Italian-style sandwich. There are also ostensibly burgers, though I saw no evidence of anyone ever getting one here, and a meatless “potato sandwich” version for vegetarians. Because the potatoes are so good, they are also sold on their own as the famous “potatoes in a cup,” in three sizes, all too big, ridiculously cheap, and available with chili, cheese and fried onion toppings. However, you get so many potatoes on the sandwich these make no sense as a side and are better on their own. One of my favorite old-school touches at Tommy’s was the throwback two-pronged wooden spear-style fork served with the potato cup.
Once you roll up your sleeves and start eating, it is hard to stop. The potatoes are wildly addictive even as they fall all over the place. The onions and peppers are perfectly softened and reduced with slow cooking, and the hot dog is a much-better-than-average all-beef model from Best Provisions in Newark, an 80-year-old Jewish deli-style ingredient producer specializing in pastrami, corned beef, roast beef and all-beef hot dogs. Best was an early adopter of the current craze of better raw materials and has been offering customers organic beef for more than 20 years, and also offers better quality Certified Angus Beef. It’s not clear which kind Tommy’s gets, but it tastes great and anchors a really good hot dog topped with really good onions, peppers and fantastic potatoes. The sausage is good too, but on its own, the standout hot dog is better, though the difference in flavor and texture makes the combo a masterpiece. You can have them add spicy chopped pepper spread if you want to kick up the heat factor, but there’s no need because it all tastes so good on its own. You will not want to miss Tommy’s if you think simple concepts that are perfectly executed and different from everything else you’ve ever tried at a very fair price are good things to eat..
Pilgrimage-worthy?: Yes – a delicious and unique take on one of America’s favorite foods, the hot dog.
Rating: OMG! (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)
Price: $ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)
Details: 900 Second Avenue, Elizabeth; 908-351-9831
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