331 Central Ave.
Ironically, this bagel story starts with two Italian guys from Hudson Catholic. They were in the class of 1975, on the football and basketball teams, the first to win the Hudson County Basketball Championship.
A whiff of nostalgia seems to permeate this school. “Every year for the past 30 years, maybe more, we’d meet in a restaurant the Thursday after Thanksgiving,” relates Steve Cuccinelli. “We get anywhere from 18 to 25 guys, a big group from the classes of ’73, ’74, ’75. They all show up to laugh and talk about memories; it’s hilarious, only men, no wives or girlfriends.”
He says that three or four years ago, he stayed after the dinner with his pal, Joe Castagna. “Joe lived in the Marion section of Jersey City,” Steve says. “He was a tight end on the football team, and I was a tackle.”
As they were catching up on what had transpired during the previous year, they got on the subject of owning a business. Joe mentioned his love of Wonder Bagels, and Steve was able to set up a meeting with Issa Solomon, owner of the chain. Though there are five shops in Jersey City, Solomon pointed out that there wasn’t one in the Heights.
“I was born and raised in the Heights, at Congress and Webster,” Steve says. His family owned the Congress Tavern, which is still there but under a different name, the Corkscrew Bar and Grill at 51 Congress.
A little ancient history: Forty-two years ago, the bar allowed only men, the drinking age was 18, there was sawdust on the floor, and a beer and a shot cost a quarter. Those were the days!
OK, back to the present. Joe and Issa searched all over the Heights for a location and finally decided on 331 Central Ave. between Lincoln and Griffith. It opened on July 15, 2016. Joe is the manager and runs the place. Steve is Issa’s partner, and Joe is Steve’s partner. Steve still works in finance, and Joe, who is retired from the Jersey City Health Department, where he was an inspector, gave up working at a company in Woodbridge.
Issa told Joe that everybody wanted to open a store but nobody wanted to work. “I’ll work,” Joe said.
A year later, Joe admits, “I’m exhausted,” but the rewards are worth it. He’s making double the money he once did, but it’s also “seeing people light up when they get a rainbow bagel. The bagels are great and the food is good. The chocolate chip cookies are to die for.”
“It was a dream come true,” Steve says, “two guys from high school who came up with the whole bagel store idea in the Heights.”
Steve, who lives in Rutherford, stops by the shop on weekends. “Going back to Jersey City every weekend, to the neighborhood where I grew up, is invigorating and exciting,” he says.
Owning and running a business has its own special appeal. “It’s the satisfaction of seeing people come for fresh orange juice and hand-rolled bagels,” Steve says. “It’s the conversation that Joe has with people. Old friends come in, and there are new faces in the Heights. The Heights is the next downtown Jersey City.”
Like many evolving neighborhoods, there are a lot of little kids. “There are baby carriages on Saturday morning,” Steve says. “I give the kids a cookie if they’re good to their parents.”
Like Joe says, those cookie are to die for.