Ever wonder how an area famous for tin cans becomes one of the hippest parts of town? Actually, the answer embodies Jersey City’s decades-long evolution from making stuff to maker spaces.
We’re talking about what some wags are calling NoJo, North of Journal Square. The former American Can Company building is now Canco Lofts. And down the street is the massive Mana Contemporary arts destination.
NoJo also encompasses India Square, long the hub for authentic Indian restaurants, food emporiums, apparel, and shops with imported Indian merchandise.
Into this lively mix comes Square 1 Community Eatery on St. Paul’s Avenue.
Four partners brought their unique talents to bear in creating this neighborhood gem: Marty Gamarello of Gamarello Plumbing and Heating; Mory Thomas, a chef formerly with the Food Network; Nick Caballero, owner of Ideas for Living, which specializes in residential interior design and construction; and Laura Skolar, owner of Century 21 Plaza Realty.
Skolar has owned the building that houses the eatery since 2008. “The storefront had been boarded up since the ’70s,” she says. “It used to be a luncheonette.”
Her fiancée , Marty Gamarello, wanted to have a food establishment there. “It was a difficult business, so we put off doing anything,” she says. “But when Marty designed the storefront, it looked pretty fabulous. It perked my interest. It’s such a great neighborhood.”
As it turned out, Mory Thomas was a good friend. After 14 years with the Food Network, he was ready to get back to Square 1, so to speak.
Cabellero, meanwhile, “saw the place and was blown away by its raw space and hardwood floors,” Skolar says. “We wanted to bring something to that neighborhood that it needed, a place where people can go hang out, relax, and enjoy themselves.”
Naming the new establishment was a fun challenge. “We had a list of about 85 names,” Skolar says. “The minute we heard it, we felt that it was right. Mory was going back to square one, back to his roots in the restaurant business. The four of us were the four sides of a square. We were starting a new venture, all at square one.”
There were other considerations.
“We didn’t want to call it a restaurant,” Skolar says. “‘Community eatery’ really stuck, a place for the community to congregate, to feel like our place is their place.”
The eatery opened in early November, serving breakfast and lunch. “We called it a soft opening,” Skolar says, “because we really wanted to get the feel from the community, their likes and dislikes. We wanted to tweak the menu to get a really good feel for what people like. The response was positive.”
What they were offering was what the hood wanted: “Great food and impeccable service,” Skolar says.
“I’d always perceived it as a stable neighborhood,” she says, donning her real-estate hat. “People in the neighborhood were longtime residents. In my building some of the people had been there 30 years. Little India is right around the corner. You have Asian and Indian families, young professionals, and we’re fortunate to have Canco and Mana Contemporary.”
The menu includes hip takes on familiar items: sweet and savory yogurt; gluten-free corn pancakes; nondairy steel-cut oats with chia seeds and dried cranberries; sandwiches with ingredients like kale almond pesto, ricotta horseradish, pequillo pepper, and chorizo manchego; salads with roasted Asian broccoli and freekeh. The eatery serves a full complement of baked goods, along with locally-roasted Kobrick Coffee, with brands like Kiss of Africa.
“We’re finding more activity later in the morning for lunch,” Skolar says, “and moms coming in for breakfast meetings.” They also cater community parties with appetizers and desserts.
On the horizon, the partners want to experiment with limited dinner service. “A popup once or twice a month,” Skolar says. “Or people coming home from work grabbing a quick bite or grab-and-go.”
Liquor licenses are expensive, so it would be BYOB for folks ordering dinner.
But, she says, “If we venture into those areas, we don’t want to take our eye off the ball.”
Meanwhile, this perfectly matched foursome is enjoying the journey. “It was a collaborative effort,” Skolar says, “Marty’s vision, Nick’s design, and Mory’s food.”—Kate Rounds
Square 1 Community Eatery
283 St. Paul’s Ave., corner of Liberty
7 a.m.-3 p.m.: Tuesday-Friday
8 a.m.-4 p.m.: Weekends