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New Tennessee Ave. pizzeria slices up the competition in A.C.
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New Tennessee Ave. pizzeria slices up the competition in A.C.

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Generally speaking, few things raise less of an eyebrow than a new pizzeria opening up shop in New Jersey. It’s not that we don’t all love the stuff, but there are just so many pizzerias … and most are basically clones of one another, putting out standard pies and subs with not much to speak of in the creativity department.

That’s why Cuzzie’s Pizzeria Kitchen in Atlantic City is so exciting!

Not content to be just another pizza joint, Cuzzie’s joins the ultra-creative lineup of restaurants on Tennessee Avenue in Atlantic City with an exciting menu of pizzas, entrees and sandwiches that nobody saw coming.

“I call it Italian-American with no rules,” says Lee Sanchez, the brains behind much of what you find on the menu at Cuzzie’s.

Sanchez runs STW Hospitality, the consulting group that has been crucial to the management and brand development of many of the most exciting restaurants and bars on Tennessee Avenue. He works hand-in-hand with owner Mark Callazzo and Executive Chef Kevin Cronin, who has made a name for himself at Callazzo’s former restaurant, The Iron Room, as well as at Rhythm & Spirits, located right next to Cuzzie’s.

“We wanted to break down the traditional barriers of what Italian food needs to be,” Sanchez says. “We sort of combined my mother’s approach to Italian-American cooking along with my and Chef Kevin Cronin’s approach to food overall. We worked on some of the things that our other restaurants were known for, such as The Iron Room’s mac ’n’ cheese sauce, which is now the cheese sauce we use on our cheesesteak at Cuzzie’s. So we are blending these ideas together in order to bring some really great food to the table.”

Unlike the other spots on the block, Cuzzie’s is designed mostly for grab -and-go. Those looking for a more refined, sit-down experience can still find many of their items on the menu at Rhythm & Spirits, but at Cuzzie’s the experience is stripped down while the food is dressed up.

“Our biggest challenge at Rhythm & Spirits was that we needed a bigger pizza oven,” Sanchez notes. “We wanted to take the pizza to the next level, but we were really out of room. But we owned the space next door that used to be the Iron Room coffee shop, so we decided to build a massive, custom-made brick oven with an open flame in there. That space became Cuzzie’s, and it allows us to offer our pizza in a grab-and-go fashion. It’s a perfect place to stop if you are walking down the street to the beach and you want a quick slice.”

The pizza

The brilliant thing about Cuzzie’s is that although they offer all kinds of unique topping combinations, they seem keenly aware that underneath it all, the pizza in its simplest form needs to stand on its own. Great ingredients are obviously important, but you can only make a great slice if you have the skills to do so.

“It’s all about balance,” Sanchez insists. “A lot of people think, ‘I like lots of cheese on my pizza,’ but too much cheese is not the answer, it falls over and slides off. It’s easy to make a pizza that has sauce and cheese on it, but you’ve got to make sure all the components taste right. We start with a great dough – Rando’s Bakery makes our dough for us because we don’t have the kitchen space to make it. And they make a great, consistent dough. We fine-tuned the sauce Kevin made and tested it until we got to the point where we all loved it. And we made sure to pick the right cheeses. We make a really cool cheese blend with mozzarella, manchego and parmesan cheeses. That manchego gives it a Spanish inspiration and plays to my heritage, but it also gives it a very unique texture and great flavor. And you need to run your oven at the right temperature. We run at 600 degrees, and we produce a very thin-crust pizza. When done right, it gets nice and crisp on the bottom, and the top caramelizes the cheese, but the pizza maker has to be sure to watch it the whole time. This isn’t some basic pizza oven; this thing has 600 degrees of open fire above it!”

The plain pie is a thing of beauty at Cuzzie’s, but you would be missing out if you didn’t try some of their other pizza options. Unlike many pizzerias where you just haphazardly select your own toppings, here the pizzas are like culinary works of art, with ingredients that are intentionally matched to complement and balance each other in brilliant ways.

The Southern Fried Chicken Pie takes that wonderfully thin Rando’s dough and tops it with crispy fried chicken, bacon and the legendary Iron Room mac ’n’ cheese sauce along with a bit of Hank’s Sauce, a favorite local hot sauce; and then there’s the Green Chili Pie that features mozzarella topped with hatch chilies, tomatillo, onion and manchego. The list goes on and on. Perhaps the hardest thing to figure out is which to order.

Not just pizza

As good as the pizza is here, the recent addition of some truly remarkable sandwiches help elevate the game at Cuzzie’s even more.

“We started out with a list of over 30 sandwiches that we wanted to add to the menu and streamlined it down to the Top 10 that we think define who we are,” Sanchez remembers.

There are standard Italian options like sausage and peppers and a pan-fried chicken cutlet parm, but things get real interesting in a hurry from there.

The Cuzzie’s Special features pan-fried chicken cutlet topped with thick-cut heirloom tomato, honey-whipped ricotta and fresh arugula dressed with olive oil and aged balsamic on a toasted sub roll. It’s decadent for sure, yet somehow manages to avoid being overly heavy despite going so far as to use ricotta cheese as a condiment.

And the brisket cheesesteak is quickly making a name for itself with its combo of slow-roasted, pulled brisket, grilled onions and, of course, that famous Iron Room mac ’n’ cheese sauce that we can’t — and won’t — stop talking about. You seriously need to try this sandwich, as it literally tastes like no other cheesesteak you have eaten before.

“That brisket cheesesteak is what we think of as our claim to fame,” Sanchez says proudly.

The newest of the sandwiches is also one of their best: the Italian. Once again they take a classic and spin it on it’s head with wonderful results, as this masterpiece boasts prosciutto, porkchetta, ham, thin-sliced onion, heirloom tomato, honey-whipped ricotta and a roasted garlic cherry pepper aioli. Yes, it’s better than the one you always get from whatever deli you always get it from.

And then there are the entrees: the paccheri pasta with roast pork; truffle udon alfredo; or vegan gnocchi in red sauce all tempt with ease. Even something as seemingly standard and generic as chicken parm gets turned on its head as Cuzzie’s offers a Southern-fried version ($24) that swaps a thickly breaded chicken thigh for the standard boring chicken breast. And that’s just the beginning.

“One thing we are going to start doing next is to continue to expand our entrée options,” Sanchez concludes. “And with COVID numbers rising again, people are ordering more takeout. I live in Atlantic City; there are a lot of amazing restaurants here, but it’s not easy to get amazing food to go, though, because a lot of the best spots are located inside the casinos and are not easy to get to. So Cuzzie’s will be offering a lot more items that will be available to go – pasta dishes and other entrees and even more great sandwiches.”

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