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I often miss the big family gatherings I used to attend as a child in the 1970s in Elizabeth, where my Hungarian relatives would fill an old white house with laughter, love, and abundant food. Visiting a cozy restaurant in Jersey City called 15 Fox Place — hidden in a sweet 1905 home full of family photos and seasonal decorations — can make anyone wax nostalgic. But the 15 or 16 dishes you’re served over three hours will provide more surprises than the average family gathering.
Marc Budinich, who runs the Italian restaurant in his childhood home, says people always talk about their own relatives when they visit. “They say, ‘It reminds me of my mother’s house; it reminds me of my grandmother’s house,’ ” he tells me on a Saturday night, sitting in the dimly lit garden behind the house, as 50 guests arrive to fill large tables on two floors.
A visit to the eatery, tucked into a residential block in the not-yet-gentrified Marion section of the West Side, is a special-occasion experience. Patrons usually have to make reservations a few weeks to a few months in advance. They’re served over three hours, with an intermission to meet and mingle (and digest) in the back yard. There’s no menu, but Marc and his family work to accommodate certain dietary requests and restrictions.
“That’s part of the business,” he says, as a string of holiday lights glimmers from the fence. “We had someone who was allergic to tomato. She came to a place with no menu, an Italian place, and is allergic to tomatoes! But,” he adds confidently, “we figured it out.”
Marc and his father, Richard, started the restaurant in the 1990s with mother Kathryn Budinich, who passed away a year and a half ago. The concept had taken root a decade earlier. When Marc was in seventh grade, his family moved out of his grandmother’s building around the corner and into the two-story white home at 15 Fox Place, purchased for $42,000 (“now the porch is worth $42,000,” Richard chuckles).
Richard, who’d been selling homemade candy at Critchley’s Chocolates in the Route 440 Mall, closed his shop around 1983. He and Kathryn, who liked to cook for family and guests, started a catering business in 1986.
The family loved decorating the small rooms in the house with photos, letters, and holiday knickknacks. Marc’s friends enjoyed visiting and so did their catering clients.
“We were working with our clients,” Marc explains, “and they said, ‘I wish we could eat here.’ We thought, ‘Maybe we should open up the downstairs.’ Then the New York Times came and gave us a review, which we weren’t ready for.”
The 2003 review, “Fill ‘Er Up,” says the restaurant has the “delicious touch of the speakeasy” as it’s a secret for those in the know.
The family grew the restaurant to meet the demand. The house’s intimate rooms, each of which has a name (“The Library,” “The Tuscany Room”) have tables that seat two to 14 guests.
The restaurant is almost always open on Fridays and Saturdays and will open other days if they get large enough requests. People have requested a room for an engagement party or to propose (in case anyone wants a sure thing, no one has said no yet, Marc confirms).
Marc says right now, the restaurant is largely booked through December. They don’t open on Thanksgiving and Christmas, but any meal at the eatery feels like a holiday, especially because of the decorations.
The menu includes special dishes for each season, including fall dishes with squash and spices like cinnamon. On this particular evening, Marc, Rich, and the chefs are carefully counting and placing appetizers and desserts on trays, including baked butternut squash with cinnamon, chicken roulade braised with red wine and butter, cinnamon biscotti, and fresh zeppoles with cannoli cream, honey, and powdered sugar.
Marc says he’s expecting a guest who’s a vegetarian, as well as someone who’s allergic to cinnamon. In small kitchens on both floors of the house and one in the basement, the staff carefully prepares each plate.
Marc recites the order in which the dishes will be served. First, guests will get wine crackers with olive tapenade (having tried it, it’s rich and appropriately olive-y), shrimp braised in white wine, baked mussels, eggplant with fontinella cheese, stuffed peppers, polenta (a favorite of Marc and his late mom), an heirloom tomato salad with cucumber and mozzarella served in a baked crouton, and lemon granita sorbet to “cleanse the palate.”
And then, Marc says without a hint of irony, “Dinner begins.”
Dinner that evening will be chicken in red wine, mashed potatoes, the aforementioned squash, and several pasta dishes, including pasta limon (lemon rind, garlic, cream, salt, and pepper) and linguine with mini meatballs and peas. It’s a summer favorite, Marc says, but he doesn’t take it off the menu.
The restaurant uses four different tomato sauces for its pasta.
After the pasta course, everyone in the restaurant will take a break to head to the back patio to chat.
For dessert, they’ll serve the aforementioned zeppoles with cannoli cream, biscotti, other desserts, and espresso and tea. Marc’s dad still makes candy, but mostly he sells to family and friends.
Marc adds that while it’s hard to go on without his mom, serving her favorites helps keep her spirit alive. “This is a sweet thing we’re happy to be able to do,” he says. “With her not around, it’s tough some nights. But every part of her is here.”
The house displays — in addition to the photos and the required refrigerator magnets — letters from dignitaries praising Kathryn. And there are photos of celebs who’ve stopped by, including James Gandolfini, who visited while filming “The Sopranos” nearby.
On this Saturday night, the guests are pleased. Seated at a four-person table are two cousins and their spouses, drawn there by a story in a local news outlet over the summer.
“It reminds me of my grandmother’s house,” says Nick DeNicola, who lives in Randolph.
“My mom has these plates,” says James Sendon, observing the large plates with pink flowers. “It reminds me of all my mom’s friends who have stuff everywhere, pictures everywhere. The whole setup is fantastic.”
Marc says the restaurant doesn’t have plans to expand. For a few years, the family ran another restaurant in Belleville (Marc lives in Nutley), but it took too much time away from the original, he said.
But he’s excited to see the changes in the neighborhood. Fox Place is down the hill from the Journal Square transit station, where a number of tall residential buildings are rising, such as Journal Squared by KRE Group.
Nearby are a ballfield, mom-and-pop shops, and attached single-family homes that remain largely untouched. But new development is coming: The old Puccini’s restaurant blocks away will be transformed into almost 500 units of housing.
Marc says that most diners come by Uber or limo or public transportation, although there is some street parking available.
After a career working in restaurants in New York City years ago, Marc is fine staying close to home. Partly because of his experience managing bars/restaurants, Marc shies away from offering alcohol at the eatery, but guests often bring their own. There are plenty of wine bottles around to decorate.
While the food is prepared within, Marc does get the bread from Elio’s on the West Side.
A meal at 15 Fox Place is $95 per person, not including tax and gratuity. They offer $50 and $25 meals for children. Reservations are required. Call 201-333-1476 for more information.