We continue our vegetable-forward look at Jersey City’s most acclaimed restaurants with a trip to Corto (507 Palisade Ave.), an established favorite in the Heights. Unlike Ondo, the subject of last month’s column, Corto isn’t squeaky-new.  Its cooks, led by executive chef Matthew Moschella, have been serving streamlined, ambitious, unfussy Italian-inspired food to hungry visitors since May 2018.  While it’s been around, it’s developed a reputation for consistency, creativity, approachability, and neighborhood spirit — it was, for instance, one of the first restaurants in town to offer do-it-yourself home kits during the pandemic. Yet I’m always surprised by how many Jersey City residents haven’t tried it, or haven’t even heard of it. Like many of the attractions in the Heights, Corto still feels a bit like a well- guarded secret. Should vegetarians be in on it?  

Why we’re interested:  Rarely does a Best-in-JC list fail to honor Corto. That includes roundups by food journalists who aren’t headquartered in New Jersey, including those at The Infatuation and Thrillist.  Most of these reviews have emphasized the spontaneous elegance and relaxed quality of the cooking.  But they’ve also noted how well Corto is integrated into its community. The Heights is sometimes called a culinary destination, and Corto, along with Bread and Salt (and the Riverview Farmers’ Market) has had plenty to do with those accolades.

Is it vegetarian friendly?: Generally, it’s not that tough to avoid meat at a pasta spot. No animals are hurt during the making of a bowl of spaghetti with tomato sauce.  Pesto is dangerous only to basil leaves. It’s when a vegetarian departs from the basics that he or she gets into trouble.  At many Italian restaurants — even good ones — the cooks will toss handfuls of pancetta, guanciale, or sausage into otherwise-ordinary dishes in order to generate novelty and interest. That failure of imagination virtually never happens at Corto, where there’ll be two or three intriguing pastas that pass vegetarian inspection.  These change seasonally, and sometimes by the week.  They’re also willing to make a meat-free version of their well-loved rigatoni with Calabrian chiles, but unless you’re hell-bent on heat, our advice is to trust Moschella’s vision and order one of the more unusual vegetarian pasta dishes.  (That’s especially true if there are mushrooms involved — but more on that later.)


The first section of the Corto menu is another draw for vegetarians.  No matter the time of year, there’ll be a few dishes that are enthusiastic celebrations of in-season produce. Sometimes, the vegetable will be enhanced, but often, it’ll arrive at the table with little alteration. On our last visit, we were greeted with an extremely forceful presentation of asparagus, cut up, given a firm, quick handshake in the kitchen, and rested atop a nest of frisee. Everything about the dish —  the spritz of lemon, the crumble of garlic breadcrumbs, the astringent white balsamic — was designed to enhance the rude spring freshness and chlorophyll snap of the asparagus spears and slices.  This was the work of a cook with absolute faith in the local farmer’s market.  I’m pleased to say that faith was rewarded.

Cucumber Salad

This one was a bit more complicated, but still led with June brightness. The menu suggested there’d be blueberries in it, and I was a little disappointed to find that they didn’t come whole; instead, they’d been juiced into the olive oil dressing.  No intense bites of fruit, alas, but the berries still made their presence felt.  The glaze tinted the pieces of cucumber, big and juicy as half-melted ice cubes, with a purple aura.  What really made the dish were the slices of kohlrabi, which were almost as thin and translucent as parchment.  Wrapping a tart and blueberry-glazed hunk of cucumber in a casing of kohlrabi and adorning it with a basil leaf was one of the more harmonious trips to the garden I’ve taken this spring.  I feel the need to add that there was also a colatura-spiked broccoli dish on the menu, which was bitter in that characteristic Italian fashion and loaded with cruciferous flavor and texture.  That’s some powerful allegiance Corto is pledging to the greenmarket.   

Cacio e Pepe Tart

Ever since cacio e pepe elbowed its way back on to menus in the New York area a decade ago, cooks have been looking for ways to apply its creaminess and heat to substances that don’t come from the pasta shelf.  The truth is that it’s hard not to like a combination of dairy and black pepper, no matter how it arrives. The trick for chefs is finding something novel to do with the mixture. This tart was one of the more creative applications of cacio e pepe I’ve seen yet: it was used the way a bechamel might be, tucked between coin-like discs of potato and baked into a pie.  The cacio flavor would have come through even if an ovoid scoop of buttery cheese and pepper hadn’t been placed at the side of the wedge.  It was, though, and it was overkill of the most delicious kind, especially when paired with a perfectly flaky crust.  This was outstanding and could easily have been a main course.

Campanelle With Mushrooms and Snap Peas  

No matter when you go to Corto, there will be a mushroom dish, and those mushrooms will come from the other side of town.  This restaurant in the Heights gets its edible fungi from a farm in a factory on the West Side. LifeCap (182 Broadway; here’s a fascinating ten-minute documentary about it made in the Heights by Hartz Studio) specializes in unusual mushrooms: floppy, buttery ear-like ones, dense little buttons with chewy textures, cream-white ‘shrooms with woody stalks, anything but the ordinary mushrooms that squat under cellophane at the supermarket.  Consider this bowl a confirmation of something that every locavore knows: the closer the food is grown to the place where it’s eaten, the better it’s going to taste.  The mushrooms in this pasta dish rub shoulders with sugar snap peas, and Moschella places the emphasis on the snap. Vegetables at Corto are often served just as al dente as the pasta is.


And the pasta is always al dente.  Corto is creative, but the cooks never mess up the basics. This capellini, for instance, was right on the money: firm, springy and every so slightly resistant to the bite, evenly cooked, a tangle of thin strands bearing that particular gleam that pasta only gets when it’s rescued from the water and plated at the pinnacle of its cooking.  The noodles stood up, bravely, to a bossy lemon-butter sauce and a sprinkling of lavender chive blossoms that weren’t just there for the sake of presentation.  They imparted a grassy allium flavor to the dish that was redolent of Jersey fields and the summer solstice.  Should this be on the menu when you go to Corto, get it.


Olive Oil Cake

The gold standard for olive oil cakes in the metropolitan area is the amber slab served by the pasta wizards at L’Artusi in Greenwich Village.  Nobody does it better than they do, and it’s possible that nobody ever could.  But if you can’t get to L’Artusi and you’re craving a piece, this one is practically a homage, with a pliant crust on top and an interior saturated with olive oil.  Corto knows it, too: on our last visit, they were serving it three ways, including a chocolate version.  I’m partial to the slice depicted here, which came with a passionfruit-flavored glaze that was a little too moist to be called icing.  Not depicted: a dollop of whipped cream that wasn’t strictly necessary with a cake that straddles the line between solid and liquid, but sure won’t make you mad.

The vibe: I’m not sure if I prefer the stark, handsome, Tuscan-farmhouse look of the main dining room or the lovely backyard patio that always seems to be the proper temperature no matter what Mother Nature throws at Jersey City. But the best seats in the house might just be at the pasta counter, where you can watch the cooks assemble your dishes and serve them to you straight off the stovetop.  Those who demand a full bar ought to know that Corto is B.Y.O.B., which, in my teetotaling opinion, only serves to integrate the restaurant better into the streetscape.  If you want an alcoholic beverage, there are liquor stores right around the corner.  But Corto isn’t about drinks — it’s about the food.  That said, our waiter did supply us with free refills of a raspberry, pomegranate, and grapefruit honey iced tea that was, like everything else at this restaurant, pleasantly bright and refreshing. You could call it all a cut above the typical corner Italian crowd-pleaser. But Jersey City neighborhoods are unusual places.  It stands to reason that our neighborhood restaurants would be unusually good.  

The verdict: It’s hard to imagine a vegetarian resisting Corto. Moschella has plenty of meat for the carnivorous, including an “angry chicken,” agitated by Calabrian chili oil, that’s a favorite of regulars.  But if you don’t eat meat, you don’t have to bother with any of that, and you won’t miss it at all.  This kitchen makes its deep appreciation of vegetables, and vegetable-eating, apparent in every dish it makes; better yet, the freshness of the produce they use testifies to their understanding of the ethical and environmental importance of eating locally.  Corto is more than just a nice place for a dinner out, though that it certainly is.  It’s a restaurant that captures the spirit of the neighborhood, and reflects the values of the town it’s in.  It’s a place Jersey City should be proud of.  Long may it run.

(Corto is open for dinner from 5 p.m. until 10 p.m. on Tuesday through Thursday, 5 p.m. until 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and 5 p.m. until 9 p.m. on Sunday. Brunch is server from noon until 3 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Closed Monday. The noise level is reasonable, especially if you eat outside. Expect to pay twelve to fifteen dollars for an starter, twenty to twenty-six dollars for a bowl of pasta, and twenty-two to thirty five dollars for a main course.)

Tris McCall has written about art, architecture, performance, politics, and public culture for many publications, including the Newark Star-Ledger, the Bergen Record, Jersey Beat, the Jersey City Reporter,...