Twas the night before the Games, and all through the streets, many creatures were stirring, while some dude pounded beats. His corner was full — his drumming, like, loud — while a flock of lax-bros wandered by in a crowd. Some split from the pack to grab late-night food, and each turned into me — a happy, satisfied dude.
No, but really: NJ Pizza Cafe's food is pretty good, surprisingly enough, and only made better by the fact you can pound it down at a sidewalk table while watching the young, beautiful and otherwise do their summer downtown thing, even at 1 in the morning.
And I say "surprisingly" because of my first encounter with it: a couple of hard, by-the-slice ($2.45, one-topping) selections of pepperoni pizza that could have doubled as door stoppers. It didn't help the vibe that while we ate, the guy who'd just taken our order was lying on his back one booth over, staring at the ceiling.
But apparently it's just like that here: When we stopped by in the a.m. hours, employees sat on a sidewalk bench, smoking until the door was darkened. And when their freshly baked pies taste like this — like, say, a masterpiece of roasted red-peppers, strong garlic, artichokes, creamy feta cheese and floral basil — relax away, I say.
Or consider a savory mix of pepperoni, sausage, green peppers, mushrooms, black olives and onions (both $12.99/small), plus 50 cents per ingredient). Vegetables were chopped rather thin, but it came off deliberate, like they were meant to serve as background for the good dough, which ranged from cracker-thin to medium, and a bold sauce filled with the delectable flavors of stewed tomatoes, grilled onions, roasted garlic and oregano.
Tragically, we learned Monday that the stromboli ($10.99), an instant favorite with its pastry-rich combination of butter, garlic and Parmesan (and ours filled with salami and ham), had been pulled from the menu. But a fantastic Philly hero ($8.95, plus $1 for fries), with lots of peppers, mushrooms and onions, and moist, cheesy meat that fills the bread with its juices, will be sticking around to sort you out.
A few things were just OK, like a buffalo chicken sandwich ($8.95) that came sans the advertised, and much-needed, lettuce and tomato. (While you're at it, guys, throw in some red onions and pickles, too.) The fried ravioli ($6.99) — dark, golden, delicious-looking squares — tasted like fried crumbs and the tomato sauce it came with, and the antipasto salad ($8.49) was average.
Back on track, though, I think the biggest surprise was a simple bowl of penne ($7.95). Under a cutesy menu section called "pastabilities," you pick a noodle and cover it in marinara, Alfredo, garlic aioli or the like. But do the right thing and order it with the tomato-basil cream sauce: Pale orange like a tomato vodka sauce, it made the al dente dish pulse with steaming-hot notes of gentle tang, filled in with more butter and Parmesan and buffered with a pillow-soft, garlic-bread stick.
It all definitively speaks to a place that's no longer the home of hummus, a specialty of former tenant Arabica Café. Now, under the ownership of George Will and Jeff Puglisi, it's tomato time, and with those hours, it almost always is. A word of caution, however, about going bump in the night: "It gets real silly then," says one employee.