In January of last year, I wrote about Jersey Pizza Joints (JPJ), a Facebook group created by New Jersey native Guy Madsen. At the time of publication, the page was on the verge of surpassing 10,000 followers. Fast forward 13 months—and hundreds of uploaded pictures of the Garden State’s finest pizzas—and JPJ is about to crack 55,000 followers.
What started out as a fun place for amateur critics to talk about their favorite food and often debate what’s well-done versus what’s burned has evolved into something much greater. Scores of small pizzerias have benefited from the extra attention they’ve received from the Facebook group. This attention has made a monetary difference during the pandemic as well.
In addition, through JPJ, Madsen has helped raise thousands of dollars of donations for the Tunnels to Towers Foundation (T2T), a 501(c)3 created to help first responders. “Helping small businesses and giving back to those who help us is what really matters,” Madsen told me. “And to do it with our great Jersey pizzas, well, that just makes it more enjoyable.”
Pizza Bowl 2: The Big Game
This past weekend, Jersey Pizza Joint’s second annual Pizza Bowl took place at Redd’s Biergarten, in Carlstadt, NJ, in the shadow of MetLife Stadium. Thanks to the growing popularity of the group—and perhaps with the addition of a meatball competition—attendance increased fivefold from the inaugural event.
Four regions of semifinalists representing the state’s North, South, Jersey Shore and Central—yes there IS a Central New Jersey—served up their best plain cheese slices and meatballs to discerning judges who purchased tickets to vote for the finalists.
Advancing to the final in their respective regions:
- North Region: Angeloni’s Restaurant & Pizzeria, Caldwell
- Central Region: Maria’s Pizza & Subs, Milltown
- South Region: Riccardo’s Pizza & Restaurant, Browns Mills
- Jersey Shore: Maruca’s Tomato Pies, Seaside Heights
As the house band, Aloha Monkey, jammed out, a carnival-like atmosphere of acrobatic pizza tossing, ice sculptures, and fresh-“mootz”-making classes, from Annabella’s House of Mozzarella kept the crowd busy and entertained in between judging. Meanwhile, behind the swinging door, the Redd’s kitchen was packed with world-class pizzaiolos busy working their tails off for the finale.
The Competition Heats Up
The final round was an invitation-only list of judges, local pizza experts The Pizza Hulk and Johnny C “The Pizza Guy,” as well as actors Joey D’Onofrio, Alex Corrado, and Frederico Castellucio. Castellucio, often recognized as Furio on The Sopranos, took the judging very seriously, pointing out to me, “I believe this sauce has added sugar,” as he marked his scorecard.
The VIPs ultimately crowned Maruca’s Tomato Pies as Best Pizza in Pizza Bowl 2. Domenic Maruca told NorthJersey.com reporter Matt Fagan he was “stunned to win.”
As the event’s official vote counter, I can tell you that all of the pizza finalists received a significant amount of shared love, with the Seaside Heights landmark ultimately taking the crown. The title of Best Meatballs, however, was a landslide victory for John Speciale, of PizzAmore Italian Kitchen, in Carlstadt. The charismatic Speciale walked to the stage to a chorus of “meatball Johnny” chants and seemed genuinely humbled. “I am very surprised to win,” he said, proudly raising his trophy.
What It’s Really All About
Pizza Bowl 2 was dedicated to the memory of Captain Mark Lee, of the Jersey City Fire Department. In 2014, Lee succumbed to an illness directly related to working near the fallen towers following 9/11. His wife, Cheryl Lee, attended, along with several firefighters from his department for a brief ceremony in his honor.
The idea behind the old adage “it takes a village” has never been truer. The success of Guy Madsen’s Pizza Bowl vision is the direct result of teamwork from friends, family, and a Carlstadt restaurant full of pizza lovers (not to mention all the nominees willing to leave their restaurants during the Saturday night rush). Kudos to this year’s winners. I look forward to seeing if they can repeat at next year’s Pizza Bowl 3!
Photos courtesy of Johnny C “The Pizza Guy” and Adam Horvath.