Best Pizza of The Caldwells Contest: Nicco's

Small place packs big taste with flavorful pie.

On the outside, Nicco's Italian Deli and Specialties is an unassuming little shop on Bloomfield Avenue. It's not in a cluster of stores; on the left is a hair dresser, with a bank lot to the right. Inside, it's still small, but a big Italain-American taste awaits. 

The look of the place is relatively simple—form follows function—but the walls are adorned with an interesting  "who's who" of music and televisual entertainment. (Is this Nicco's personal hall of fame?)  The usual suspects are there, like Sinatra and his Rat Pack, James Gandolflini (as Tony Soprano) and Frankie Avalon.

The back wall is virtually covered with an expansive menu of hot and cold sandwiches—prosciutto, salami, mortadella, mozzarella and combinations of them all and more make choosing a challenge. (Recommended: the chicken cutlet, provolone and broccoli rabe).

While waiting, you can get a good glimpse of some of the food; behind the main counter and within easy reach for preparation are mouth-watering plates of fresh, store-made breaded chicken cutlets and eggplant, broccoli rabe, meatballs and more.

Faster, Good Food

Then there's the owner, Nicco himself. Friendly, focused and totally hands-on, on any given day he's in constant motion, but never rushed. He takes his time making his sandwiches and the like—he mixes together sandwich ingredients methodically, and even slices the bread with care. It's perhaps somewhere in this seeming contradiction of terms where in the last eight years (Nicco also had a pizzeria in Staten Island beforehand), Nicco's has emerged as a fine purveyor of homecooked Italian food, served fast.

On any day of business, there's a line from the counter to the door—if not out of it—with people from all walks of life from office workers, contractors with their utility belts on to Verizon and UPS guys.

There's a picture of Jackie Gleason on the wall in full "Ralph Kramden" regalia. In an episode of the "Honeymooners," he passionately dimisses the cusine of an expensive restaurant, demanding of his wife Alice to "name one truck driver that eats there." 

That's a good way to look at Nicco's Italian Deli; it's in business to do business, but also to deliver great, high-quality food—to everyone.

The secret, Nicco revealed, is that he prepares each pizza, sandwich or chicken cutlet as if he was going to eat it himself.

By popular demand, Nicco's has expanded its hours and menu—he's open a little earlier, serving breakfast, and open until 8 on Thursday and Friday nights. Just don't show up on those days between 3:30 and 5 —"I check out then to recover," he said. 

On the menu is also pizza, which means that Nicco's gets automatically entered in our Best Pizza of The Caldwells contest!

Will Nicco's Italian Deli have a new calling card? Read on.

Note: For this evaluation, we enacted an alternate method of judging; We convened at Nicco's, but since there are no tables there, we went over to Rockn' Joe to eat it. This will be the selected method for establishments that are takeout only. By the way, if you have a business and would like to host our test, let us know!

This week's judges are editor Mike Pignataro, contributor Ron Albanese, "The Kid" Nick Albanese, and special guest judge Gerald D'Anton, a longtime West Caldwell resident.

Mike: Whenever you get a pizza for takeout, there's always the concern that it's not going to be as good as if you ate it there. Granted, the pizza was only in the box for about five minutes, but it tasted as if it was right out of the oven!

What immediately stood out to me was the flavorful seasoning that permeated throughout the pie. You can see the seasonings mixed well with the parmesan cheese sprinkled over the mozzarella.

I went back to speak with Nicco afterward and he said what makes the difference is that all of his seasonings and products are fresh. In fact, the menu even reads: "All food is seasoned from Nicco's garden year-round!"

It certainly makes a difference.

The crust was extremely thin—more so than Calandra's—and crisp. The sauce had a really good flavor and a rich taste.

However, one down side was that the cheese had some trouble staying on each slice. It was a little messy—but well worth the extra napkins.

Ron: Wow ... good stuff! Hot out of the box. The pie is about 14 inches in diameter and thin. Thinner than Calandra's, for reference, with the crispy crust having a nice crunchy "bite" to it. I think the secret to the thorough baking lies in the use of screens—the dough actually sits on one in the oven. 

The sauce is rich—more dark red than light—and the cheese is delicious, with a lot of each. This pizza is spicy overall, and tastes fresh. I could have eaten the whole pizza, but remained professional. If anyone remembers it, this pie is somewhat like the old Caldwell Pizzeria's pie—with a gourmet twist.

Nick: Nick rated the pizza highly, but only after being prodded. He actually forgot he was rating for a moment, and just went to town eating. His face lit up after the first bite.

On his evaluation form, he noted that his favorite part was the sauce. When having a second slice, he experienced a "cheese slider"—most of the cheese on the slice slid off onto his plate. This pizza is more of a "wet" pie.

"I didn't like that part," he said half-jokingly afterward. "But that pizza was awesome!"

Special Guest Judge: Gerald D'Anton

The longtime West Caldwell resident and Newark native joined us at Nicco's and dazzled us with some trivia. Looking around Nicco's, he'd point to various photos and say things like, "Frankie Avalon—his last name was really Avaloni" and "Jerry Lewis—he grew up in Irvington."

He loves pizza, recounting tales about it ("I used to go to Joe's") and revealing that his wife often makes it at home. His favorite pizza is a simple plain one—"I don't like sausage or anything like that."

Mr. D'Anton certainly knows his stuff. So how did Nicco's pizza fare under his taste test? It passed with flying colors.

Of the sauce, he noted it was "fresh ... excellent. He must have made this today!" He had the same impressions of the crust, but added, "it's Triple-A!"

He likened the pie to the aforementioned Joe's, and there may have been a good reason for that: Joe's used to also bake its pizza with screens.

He concluded by noting that the pie "was seasoned very good ... it's like the pies I used to get 'Down Neck.'"

Nicco's Itlalian Deli and Specialties (275 Bloomfield Ave., Caldwell)

Phone: 973-226-1707

Price for cheese pizza: $12.95

Taste tested on: Thursday, March 11, 2010

If you would like to be a guest judge, please let us know or post your experiences at each pizzeria below. After visiting Forte, Calandra's and Nicco's, The Caldwells Patch continues up Bloomfield Avenue next week with a stop at Cedar Grill & Pizza.


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