This Trenton landmark is a capital spot for steak, politics and a good cigar.
By: Jeff Milgram
Pete Lorenzo’s Cafe
Who is Pete Lorenzo and why is his restaurant so loved by the politicos and lawyers who prowl the state capital? The first part of the question will require some explanation, but the second part is easy to answer. They know great meat when they see it.
Pete Lorenzo’s Cafe, across Clinton Avenue from the Trenton train station, is all about great meat. Prime steaks and chops are all butchered and aged between six and seven weeks right on the premises.
The restaurant is also about power, or at least making powerful people comfortable while they enjoy some down time. In the beginning, Pete Lorenzo’s Cafe was where Trenton’s Democratic power structure met; now it plays host to people on both sides of the political aisle.
The late, lamented Pete Lorenzo was a retired police officer who was the head of Trenton’s Italian American Democratic Club. He retired from the force during Prohibition and opened a restaurant on Elm Street, where he cooked up steaks and pasta.
"Of course there was booze served too," says Armando Frallicciardi Jr., 37, Pete Lorenzo’s great nephew.
Adds Mr. Frallicciardi, in an ironic tone: "Politicians came to eat and probably drink."
When Prohibition ended, Mr. Lorenzo moved the restaurant to its present location, turned legit and got a liquor license, Mr. Frallicciardi said. Mr. Lorenzo’s nephew, Armando Frallicciardi Sr., started to work at the restaurant when he was 10-years-old, first busing tables and eventually working his way up to be chef and owner. His son and grandson, Armando Jr. and Armando III, are following the family tradition.
Another tradition the Frallicciardis kept concerns steaks and chops. They still do things the Pete Lorenzo way: Buy whole short loins, slice them into steaks using their own butcher and then age them on the premises for at least six weeks. The result is a steak with a full meaty flavor and unbeatable tenderness.
The restaurant is so masculine you can practically feel the testosterone. I don’t mean this in a bad way. There is a well-weathered bar at the front entrance and several rooms minimally decorated in dark wood and, I think, striped wallpaper. It’s a cross between an English men’s club and an Italian family dining room.
The light level is set way down, and visibility is limited to the person across the table. I exaggerate, but the low lighting makes Pete Lorenzo’s Cafe suitable for a romantic dinner, if you’re so inclined.
Well, there is one thing that may temper your desire to do that. Pete Lorenzo’s practically requires you to smoke at least in self-defense. Smoking, including cigar smoking, is permitted throughout the restaurant. While the ventilation system sucks up cigarette smoke, it is not up to the task of cleansing the air of cigar smoke.
Even a cigar smoker such as myself found it objectionable to sit near someone at the next table who lit up a stogie.
That’s about all I can carp about. The sound level in the dining room is pleasantly low and the service is friendly and helpful, gladly offering recommendations on what to order when asked.
Lorenzo’s offered several specials on the night I dined there. The specials all were seafood, but Armando Frallicciardi admitted freely that Lorenzo’s is really about meat. I agree.
We started off with two hot appetizers. Both were excellent. Clams Sweeny ($8) were six cherrystone clams on the half shell, topped with bits of smoky bacon, roasted peppers and a whisper of Tabasco enough to be noticed, but not enough to turn up the temperature.
The clams were warm, but still juicy, and the crunch of the bacon made a nice contrast with the sweetness of the peppers.
Stuffed mushrooms ($6.50) have the potential to be mundane and boring, or they can be very earthy and delicious. Thank heavens, the six medium-size mushrooms, stuffed with a mixture of onion, spinach, cheese, sausage and pepperoni, were as far from boring as can be.
An arugula salad ($6) with cherry tomatoes and chopped red onions stood up perfectly to the assertive house vinaigrette. But my spring salad ($6.50) with the cherry tomatoes and chopped onions seemed overpowered by the same dressing.
Being polite and thoughtful of others, I let my dinner guest choose the steak. He ordered the small between 18 and 20 ounces sirloin ($25). For an extra $4, he had the kitchen smother the steak with crisp home fried potatoes, hot peppers, onions and mushrooms. Despite a warning from our waitress that the hot peppers were incendiary, ordering the vegetables was a wise decision.
Ordered medium rare, the steak was rich in the indescribable primal taste that only meat can provide. It was tender like a filet mignon, but with much more taste.
Lorenzo’s offers a selection of basic pasta dishes and some seafood items. But I couldn’t resist the veal saltimbocca ($20) that our waitress recommended.
The five slices of ultra-tender milk-fed veal, sautéed with proscuitto, mushrooms and onions and served with a sauce of Marsala and dry sherry make up Pete Lorenzo’s version of saltimbocca.
Vegetables are extra, and we ordered sautéed broccoli rabe ($5), which was perfectly al dente, its slight bitterness cutting into the sweetness of the Marsala and sherry sauce.
Desserts are not made in-house, but they are delicious. A mousse-like key lime pie ($5) was tart and luscious, and the tiramisu ($5) was creamy with light coffee and cocoa undertones.
Pete Lorenzo’s has a wine list that is to die for. The selections go far beyond the usual cabernets, Chiantis, Bordeaux and Burgundies. The list contains bottles at almost any price range.
There is also a wonderful selection of wine specials that are discounted a couple of dollars. From this list we plucked a rich and fruity Kunde Zinfandel for a measly $20.
With its aged prime red meat and fine wines, Pete Lorenzo’s Cafe is an experience that everyone should have at least once. Now if they could only seat that cigar smoker a little farther away from me.