Driving near Raritan, I needed one thing: a loaf of bread. (And wanted another: a cup of coffee.) In that part of the state, I didn't know where to find either. But I spotted an "Italian Bakery" sign, pulled over, and hoped for a loaf of bread. I opened the door and was greeted by a blast of rapid-fire Italian. Yes, there were the glass cabinets, fluorescent lights, and white walls of a New Jersey bakery, but the atmosphere was something else entirely—a pure Italian coffee bar. Only the absence of liquor ruined the effect.
Within seconds, I was in the middle of a discussion of Italian politics, had an espresso—a very fine espresso by Italian bar standards—and was ready to call myself a regular. When I went back the next day, I was greeted like a long-lost relative and soon sharing my views on Italian culture and cuisine with everybody in the house.
Not just for coffee, the place sells all sorts of baked goods and more—marzipan in shapes like corn and fig, and classic Southern Italian cookies, sold by the pound or pre-wrapped for a quick gift. Muffins were a bit of a puzzle. Were they a concession to American tastes? Or to Northern Italians?
Is this the best shot of espresso in the state? Well, if you're a coffee connoisseur, no. For that, you'd have head over to Lambertville or Princeton to one of those places that roasts their own. But this is an Italian bar shot, complete with arguments, lively energy, and a "You're one of us" feeling that engulfs you—like either a warm hug, or a tsunami, depending on your mood. And in a local Italian bar, your mood is always of some significance.
And the baked goods really are good. Of course, there are so few good Italian bakers left in New Jersey that I'm afraid to judge them. What if they don't like what I say and close up shop? Do we want a future of supermarket bakery departments and old half-eaten sacks of Chips Ahoys? They should know how happy we are that they're here at all.
64 West Somerset Street, Raritan, NJ 08869 (map)