Eating in Ramsey

By / Photography By Kent Fairfield | April 01, 2014
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Varka cuisine
Lobster gyros, cucumber tomato relish and mint tzatziki at Varka

Farm-to-table and a horse above a door in northwest Bergen County

“Don’t buy food from strangers,” advises a painting on the wall of Local Seasonal Kitchen. This sentiment permeates the burgeoning food scene in the borough of Ramsey, nestled in northwest Bergen County between Route 17 and the Ramapo River Valley.

From the (almost) year-round farmers’ market, to local chefs committed to farm-to-table cuisine, to the tavern where families have gathered for generations, in Ramsey it’s easy to know who is making, and growing, your food.

Ramsey, population 14,500, has a small-town feel despite its location 25 miles from downtown Manhattan in New Jersey’s most populous county. Just west of Route 17, Ramsey High School overlooks the compact downtown business district where there are still no parking meters on Main Street. The town covers six square miles between Wyckoff and Allendale to the south, and Mahwah and Upper Saddle River to the north, which separate Ramsey from the New York state line.

Like the Ramapo River that fl ows into New Jersey from Orange and Rockland counties in New York, many Hudson Valley farmers send their harvest across the Jersey border to the Ramsey Farmers Market. Launched in 2010 by the Ramsey Historical Association at the Erie Plaza NJ Transit train station, the popular Sunday market draws some 40 vendors from New Jersey and the Hudson Valley, including Blooming Hill Farm (Blooming Grove, New York), Matarazzo Farms (North Caldwell) and the Montclair Bread Company. At the market, you can fi nd fresh fruits and vegetables; homemade pastas, breads and sauces; and local eggs, honey and pickles, among other artisanal foods. Plus lots of free parking. In the winter, the market relocates inside to the Eric Smith School on North Central Avenue. With its mix of established and new food artisans and an impressive roster of regional farms, the farmers’ market has quickly earned a reputation as one of the best in Bergen County.

“Our market has evolved into a routine Sunday destination, where people have the opportunity to meet local farmers and food purveyors, try different produce and foods and ask questions,” says market manager Nancy Boone. “We want our community of vendors and market-goers to feel that the Ramsey Farmers Market is really their market.”

Chef Kevin Kohler of Café Panache
Chef Kevin Kohler of Café Panache

Within a quarter-mile radius of the train station, Ramsey boasts one restaurant consistently ranked among the state’s best (Café Panache), another that tops the rankings for seafood and Mediterranean cuisine (Varka Estiatorio) and a third earning praise statewide as a notable new restaurant (Local Seasonal Kitchen).

Café Panache, a well-respected, upscale establishment in the center of downtown Ramsey, has been serving a farm-to-table menu since before there was a label for restaurant cooking inspired by seasonal ingredients. For 28 years, chef-owner Kevin Kohler has crafted his menu based on the freshest locally available food. He harvests produce himself at nearby Abma’s Farm in Wyckoff, and diners can enjoy a constantly changing menu of dishes like chilled gazpacho soup with Abma’s heirloom farm tomatoes, crispy confit duckling rare roasted breast in a Jersey peach purée, and prime sirloin steak with Abma’s garlic and soy reduction, served in an elegant white-tablecloth dining room with tall windows facing Main Street.

Across the street and around the corner on North Spruce Street, fine diners can splurge on pristine seafood and Mediterranean specialties at Varka Estiatorio, a Greek “fish house” that opened in 2005. Grilled octopus, whole fish, stuffed grilled calamari and the Greek spreads from executive chef George Georgiades get rave reviews. Varka has an active bar scene and an extensive wine list. You can sit on the patio in the spring and summer. Watch out for flying tables, though, since Varka has already appeared a few times on the “reality” television show, “Real Housewives of New Jersey.”

The newest addition to Ramsey’s upscale dining scene, Local Seasonal Kitchen, has quickly gained a loyal following since opening in February 2013. “The restaurant’s success is nothing short of a miracle,” says chef Steven Santoro, who has deep Ramsey roots. Santoro spent childhood summers working on his grandfather’s 35- acre farm in Ramsey, where Dominic Suraci grew blue spruce and dogwood trees, and cultivated vegetables and herbs that became the ingredients for large family dinners every Sunday. Santoro’s grandmother, Flora, showed him how to make pasta by hand, using a well-floured broomstick handle to roll out the dough, even for the most delicate sheet pastas. Santoro’s well-traveled professional cooking career has taken him to kitchens in Florida, New York City, New Jersey, Westchester and the Culinary Institute of America.

Local Seasonal Kitchen staff
Local Seasonal Kitchen
Photo 1: Jean Santoro, chef Steven Santoro and pastry chef Jessica Marotta
Photo 2: Local Seasonal Kitchen

He had moved back to Ramsey 12 years ago and was working at a popular Italian spot in midtown Manhattan when two cousins he hadn’t seen for years came in for dinner. They asked Santoro why he wasn’t running his own restaurant. That chance encounter evolved into a new family partnership and the business plan for Local Seasonal Kitchen.

Occupying a storefront that previously housed a deli in a nondescript shopping plaza on West Main Street, Local is now a bustling BYO dining room serving farm-to-table cuisine with a Manhattan vibe. (You might hear Led Zeppelin on the sound system late in the evening.) Santoro describes his cuisine as an “ingredientdriven kitchen.” In the spring and summer, Santoro might source as much as half his produce from the farmers’ market. Whatever is in season can be featured in multiple dishes. “I play with things as they come in,” Santoro says. When white truffles became available in December, for example, they appeared in a risotto, an egg raviolo appetizer and a meat-filled agnolotti. Homemade pastas—inspired by Flora—feature prominently among Santoro’s creations. A plate of fresh spaghetti with lobster chunks and Calabrian hot peppers is a popular standout. Entrées might include Barnegat Light sea scallops or herb-roasted chicken breast. Santoro’s menu changes often. For a fall dinner during the high school football season, my wife and I enjoyed a Berkshire-pork-belly appetizer dressed with a cherrypomegranate purée and Winesap apple compote. Grilled octopus is served with neatly squared pickled white sardines that add a nice vinegary tang. Don’t skip a dessert like the luscious dark chocolate and green tea budino with toasted marshmallow topping. Like me, you might find yourself popping in for a neatly wrapped bag of Local’s homemade caramel popcorn with smoked bacon bits. Affordable family-owned restaurants downtown complement Ramsey’s fine-dining options. Whether it is Tawara for Japanese fare, flavorful curries at GAO Thai Kitchen, or Smyrna Mediterranean Cafe for falafel and hummus, there are plenty of cuisines to try.

food options in Ramsey
grilled veggies
Photo 1: Clockwise, from top left: Pão de Queijo, gluten-free cheese bread at Porto Alegre Café; octopus salad at Local Seasonal Kitchen; Caldo Verde, traditional Portuguese soup made with collard greens, potatoes and Brazilian sausage at Porto Alegre Café; maitake mushrooms, “Hen of the Woods,” Nori Aioli at Café Panache; Clydesdale horse statue at Kinchley’s Tavern
Photo 2: grilled and roasted winter vegetables at Local Seasonal Kitchen

Health-conscious Brazilian food is one of the less common cuisines you can find in Ramsey. Luciane Gilan, a native of Brazil who ran the popular Café Colonial in Soho for 16 years, opened Porto Alegre Café on Ramsey’s Main Street in May 2011. Porto Alegre, named for the largest city in the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, is a casual café with a small counter and about 15 tables, eclectically mismatched. According to Gilan, as customers have learned about the café, they have responded positively to her healthy Brazilian dishes. She serves a dish she calls Brazilian Beans, for example, a version of feijoada without the stewed meat. Gilan also makes her own traditional pão de queijo (cheese bread) with yuca flour imported from Brazil. Try the strong Brazilian espresso (the pingado is equal parts espresso and milk) with eggs for breakfast, or for lunch a caldo verde—a hearty soup with thin collard greens, Portuguese sausage and potatoes. Porto Alegre’s chicken stew with dried shrimp, peanuts, cilantro and tomatoes (ximxim de galinha) and arroz dos Pampas (sautéed steak and rice served with black beans) are popular Brazilian dinner entrées.

Beyond Main Street, look for the large Clydesdale horse atop the front door to find Kinchley’s Tavern (North Franklin Turnpike on the other side of Route 17), where local families pack the dining room on weekends waiting for bar pie pizzas, pastas, and Italian-American standards. Kinchley’s legendary pizza recipe—a very thin crust with sweet tomato sauce—is unchanged since 1947 and draws a loyal following from near and far. Sit at the bar and sample the good draft beer selection while you wait for your table in the dining room adorned with vintage model trains. Ask for Fra Diavolo sauce for a spicier pie.

Aside from Kinchley’s, which has long been a popular mainstay, Ramsey’s food scene has changed dramatically since Kevin Kohler opened Café Panache in 1985. There are more upscale restaurants and a wider range of food choices. What distinguishes many of the newcomers, however, is the same commitment to fresh, healthy ingredients, sourced locally when possible. Kohler’s personal approach no doubt has something to do with that. “Chef Kohler has been phenomenal,” says Gilan. “As soon as I opened my café, he stopped by to introduce himself, and even recommended his favorite suppliers. No one in the industry does that.” In Ramsey, they do.

food options in ramsey
Clockwise, from top: Carpaccio of Scottish salmon, heirloom tomatoes, lime at Café Panache; Brazilian beans, brown rice, sautéed vegetables and small tomato-cucumber salad at Porto Alegre Café; a variety of whole grain breads from Montclair Bread Company and produce from Blooming Hill Farm at the Ramsey Farmers’ Market

DINING Downtown

Bon Giovanni • 61 E. Main St. | 201.825.1111 | Fine Italian cuisine “with a Brazilian touch.”

Brady’s at the Station • 5 W. Main St. | 201.327.9748 
Popular spot for burgers, beer and Irish fare in the center of town.

Café Panache • 130 E. Main St. | 201.934.0030
One of New Jersey’s top-rated restaurants featuring Chef Kevin Kohler’s classic technique
and fresh ingredients. BYO.

GAO Thai Kitchen • 63 W. Main St. | 201.962.2691

Lakeside Grille and Bar (at the Ramsey Golf & Country Club) • 105 Lakeside Dr. | 201.327.0009 | An eclectic American menu. Open to the public in the clubhouse.

Lettuce Inn • 30 E. Main St. | 201.818.9988 | Sandwiches, salad and sushi.

Local Seasonal Kitchen • 41 W. Main St. | 201.962.9400 
Chef Steven Santoro’s farm-to-table cuisine with a Manhattan vibe. BYO.

Maguro Sushi House • 92 E. Main St. | 201.327.4888

Ronnie G’s Coal Oven Pizzeria • 31 W. Main St. | 201.934.6000 
Neapolitan pies in a coal-fired oven. Owned by a nephew of Patsy Grimaldi.

Porto Alegre Café • 19 E. Main St. | 201.825.2222 
Healthy versions of traditional Brazilian dishes. Stop in for strong coffee and pão de queijo (cheese bread).

Smyrna Mediterranean Cafe • 21 E. Main St. | 201.934.7990 
Hummus, falafel, baklava and other Mediterranean dishes.

Tawara Japanese Restaurant • 53 W. Main St. | 201.825.8712

Varka Estiatorio • 30 N. Spruce St. | 201.825.8899 
Upscale seafood and Mediterranean specialties.

DINING Route 17 and beyond

Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza • 984 Rte. 17 N. | 201.818.2625 
One of three chain locations in New Jersey.

Biggie’s Clam Bar • 1315 Rte. 17 S. | 201.962.9099 
Opened in October 2013, the largest of Biggie’s four locations. Full bar.

Greek City Restaurant • 1300 Rte. 17 N. (Ramsey Square Shopping Center) | 201.760.2500
BYO with Greek specialties for lunch and dinner.

Kinchley’s Tavern • 586 N. Franklin Tpke. | 201.934.7777
The place for thin-crust pizza since 1946. Cash only.

The Shannon Rose Irish Pub • 1200 Rte. 17 N. | 201.962.7602 
shannon-rose-ramsey | One of three New Jersey locations.


L’Arte Della Pasticceria • 107–109 E. Main St. | 201.977.4128 
A contemporary Italian pastry shop that opened in August 2013.

Steve’s Market • 12 W. Main St. | 201.327.9466 
Family-owned gourmet market.

Morano’s Italian Gourmet Market • 1 E. Main St. | 201.825.8020 
Deli, prepared meals.

Organico • 495 N. Franklin Tpke. | 201.934.5511 
Organic grocery, café and juice bar. Excellent smoothies.

Ramsey Farmers Market 
Winter Indoor Market (December to March)
Eric Smith School off North Central Avenue, Sundays, 10am to 2pm
Summer Outdoor Market (June to November)
Main Street train station, Sundays, 9am to 2pm

Article from Edible Jersey at
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