The best thing about my parents retiring to the Jersey Shore is the proximity in which they live to the finest Italian deli / caterer / gourmet shop I've ever experienced. This place should be heralded as the Zabar's of the Jersey Shore and it's CIA-grad, namesake-owner Joe Leone (despite the fact that he's in his mere late 20s) already deserves Jersey-style commemoration alongside Whitman and Lombardi with his own Turnpike rest stop. Joe Leone's earnest, joyful, large-hearted approach to food is a pure antidote to the otherwise all-too-cynical Jersey Shore cusine scene.
Foremost: I love his daily-baked artisan breads and rolls. He's one of the few Italian bakers around who does "integrale" -- whole-wheat loaves and sandwich rolls -- and he does them better than even Zito's of NYC. Superb quality flours. About a dozen different bread offerings every day. Nancy Silverman, jump on the LAX-EWR red eye and bring your notepad.
The myriad delights at Mr. Leone's hot deli counter never fail to make my knees buckle. He's got all the classics you'd expect -- mouthwatering meatballs (better than my Genoa-born Noni Eleanor Testino's), zesty sausage and peppers -- but with lots of pleasant twists and surprises: his tomato salad features green zebra heirlooms; the pan-roasted garlic in his broccoli rabe is so perfectly golden and sweet you could eat it like candy... Every ingredient is top-quality, that-day fresh and expertly prepared. I dare you not to max out your credit card on this heavenly stuff.
There are also the cheeses, the deli meats, the deftly-chosed packaged import goods, his take-home pasta sauces (I just ate an entire pint of his marinara with a spoon) and -- oh yeah -- the desserts! Cookies, biscotti and my favorite -- the creamy-dreamy cannolis. Sigh.
Joe Leone's namesake operation is a small stripmall storefront at the northern tip of Ocean County's shoreline peninsula. 400 Route 35 S, Point Pleasant, 732-701-0001.
Happy eating, bring a picnic basket! And will those of you who already know please help me sing his praises?