Sunday, October 13, 2013

Photo-of-the-Week #128 - Mario's Pizza, Clifton, New Jersey, September 2013

Behold, the pizza I measure all other pizza against. This photo was taken at Mario's Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria in my hometown of Clifton, New Jersey. Unfortunately, while little seems to change significantly in my hometown, Mario's has changed.

First, I haven't been there in a few years. I met my sister and brother-in-law there for the famed thin crust pizza, known as Emma's Pizza. Well, the first surprise was the empty parking lot at 7 PM. I've never seen their parking lot empty . . . EVER. The second surprise was that the exterior of the building had been changed and there were now windows were their were never windows before. The third surprise was upon entering the restaurant. It was no longer the well-aged knotty pine paneling and low light, old fashioned (actually old, not by decorative design) lighting. It was gone and it was now bright and very yellow and white. The tables no longer had the red and white checkered table clothes. It had lost all the ambiance that made it Mario's.

But, those weren't the worst surprises. The serving staff no longer consisted of family members, all of Italian descent. There was a blonde, female server with a decidedly Eastern European accent (she was there the last time I was there several years ago). There was a male server who was very attentive and friendly, but also, not the same as the old family feeling. We ordered a large cheese pizza, just as we had many times during our youth when our parents took us to Mario's and even when I was in high school and college and a bunch of my buddies and I would head there for our pizza fix. I ordered my favorite beverage, birch beer. Now, this had NEVER happened before, but I was informed they were completely out of birch beer. This is sacrilege. The server even went to the basement himself to see if he could find a hidden or lost keg of the (to me) liquid delicacy. Nada! I ended up with water and lemon.

The pizza arrived and it was good. It resembled the pizza I have measured all pizza by for the past 46 years. But, unfortunately, it didn't actually measure up to the standard it once was. Wow! What a disappointment. Oh! And, I mentioned that the parking lot was empty - and not coincidentally, so was the restaurant that was typically bustling with families and hustling servers. I think there were three tables occupied including ours. To say I was disappointed would be a gross understatement. The server brought the new owner over to meet us (yes, the family that started the restaurant in 1945 had sold this Clifton landmark and icon). Alfredo, a very nice gentleman from Spain, apologized for not having any birch beer and told us about all the changes he had made, but he had kept the kitchen staff and all the original recipes. Unfortunately, something was lacking or missing, I think it was everything he had changed and the original family.

Sadly, I checked Yelp to look for reviews and found that I am not alone in my assessment. It is apparent that unless Alfredo does something to restore the quality and credibility of Mario's, it may soon be boarded up like so many other old establishments. But, when I was talking with the owner of North Jersey Ravioli and the server at Rutt's Hut, I discovered that the son (who didn't own any interest in Mario's, but wanted to take it over and keep it as it was - but the family decided against that) has opened his own Italian restaurant and pizzeria about a block away. So, the next time I'm in Clifton (which will be at the end of this month - October 2013), I'll seek out his establishment and see how well he's doing at carrying on the family tradition. Change is inevitable, but I only accept it while kicking and screaming, at least in this case.  

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