elor’s and master’s degrees and a PhD. in
child psychology from Columbia University.
She served as executive director of Edwin
Gould Services for Children and Families in
Manhattan from 1973 until her death.
After a stint in the Army, Hackney was
working in the cable TV industry in Dallas
when his mother, in failing health, asked
him to return home to the Bronx. He did,
bringing his wife and daughters. Lillie Mae
died eight months later. Hackney took an
executive job with a cable and broadband
company, eventually relocating to South
Orange, then Montclair in 1999.
Armed with his mother’s notes—which
his Aunt Betty, who still lived in North
Carolina, fleshed out into finished recipes—
Hackney stepped up his barbecuing with
a cooker in his garage. Alarmed by thick
plumes of white smoke from the (initially
not well vented) garage, some of his Montclair neighbors called the fire department.
He learned to appease them, and the firemen, with regular peace offerings of succulent smoked brisket, pulled pork and ribs.
The delight they took in his cooking stirred
thoughts of what he might like to do if the
cable/broadband business ever went slack.
When it seemed to do just that, in
2007, Hackney, who is divorced, and his
companion, Kim Chandler, opened the
Wood Pit in a former pet shop on Bloom-
field Avenue ( thewoodpit.com). “The first
week we were open was phenomenal,”
Hackney, 60, recalls. “And then it crashed,
like someone turned the off switch.”
Over the years, business has revived,
and Hackney is now considering an on-site
expansion. Still, he freelances as a commu-
nications consultant to make ends meet,
and says that he, Chandler and son Carl
Hackney, 26, from his first marriage, have
not taken salaries in almost four years.
Lillie Mae’s spirit pervades the enterprise. Serving her collards, yams, barbecue beans, mac and cheese, pulled pork,
beef ribs and smoked chicken, the Wood
Pit enjoys universally glowing reviews.
Most of all, there is plenty of the North
Carolina mustard-and-vinegar sauce that
has sustained the Brower family perhaps
“There are others like it,” Hackney allows, “but not just like it. That sauce makes
the Wood Pit what it is.” ■
AMBIENCE: Lively, clubby
WINE LIST: BYO
DINNER FOR TWO: $95
HOURS: Dinner: Monday through
Thursday, 5 to 9 PM; Friday and
Saturday, 5 to 10 PM; Sunday, 4 to
AX, MC, V, DC, D; X
628 Ocean Avenue, Long Branch
Some will be relieved, others dis- appointed, that you won’t find
branzino in chocolate cookie crust or a
ricotta-chocolate croissant with blueberry jellybean caramel sauce at Tre
Amici, though those dishes helped chef/
owner Matthew Zappoli win Chopped
two years ago. Neither will you find food
flashed with frigid liquid nitrogen or
made with other high-tech techniques
Zappoli studied at the Culinary Institute
of America and later applied at three
restaurants owned by famed chef Charlie Palmer.
What you will find are beautifully
prepared classic Italian dishes that Zappoli sometimes tweaks or updates, but
not so much as to upset the regulars of
his popular Long Branch BYO. Zappoli,
who grew up in Middletown, relished
practicing molecular gastronomy in the
kitchens of Palmer’s Aureole restaurants
in New York and Las Vegas. .
“But that’s hard to do on an everyday
menu at a BYO in Long Branch,” he said
in a phone interview after my visits.
When Zappoli, his brother, Paul, and
Michael Cacciuttolo—the “tre amici,” or
three friends—took over the 15-year-old
al Piccolo Forno in 2008, they cautiously
added the words Tre Amici to the existing name, not wishing to ruffle regulars.
“It was a poor decision on my part,”
Zappoli admitted. This summer the
three dropped the original name, the
better to establish Tre Amici’s own,
more progressive, identity.
“I’m trying to be a little more risky,”
Zappoli said. “You’re not going to find
rabbit with truffles anywhere else
around here. Then again, some people
come in and just want chicken parmigiana.” It is, in fact, on the menu, as is
I encourage customers to venture
beyond the old standbys, because Zappoli’s riskier dishes are among his best.
Earthy rabbit agnolotti, for example—
each square of pasta is filled with a mixture of smoked loin and rib meat, braised
leg and flank and mascarpone, served in
the reduced braising liquid fortified with
truffle oil and topped with shaved black
truffles. Kabocha squash gnocchi also
expands on tradition, adding squash to
the potatoey pillows and serving them
with sautéed squash and a wild boar ragout.
Outstanding filet mignon carpaccio was drizzled with olive oil and aged
balsamic vinegar, given a dollop of olive tapenade and sprinkled with slivers
of pickled red onions, capers and big
crystals of black lava salt for a palpable
crunch. Zappoli bumps up classic eggplant rolatini by smearing long eggplant
slices with ricotta and mascarpone, rolling them up and frying them, crisping
the outside while keeping the inside
moist. Then he bakes the roll-ups in a
tangy house marinara.
Less interesting starters included
fried calamari with no hint of seasoning,
served with a standard tomato sauce,
and over-breaded stuffed shrimp with
not enough garlicky scampi sauce.
The most enjoyable entrées we tried
were perfectly pan-seared sea scallops
over buttery shrimp risotto, and succulent rack of lamb in a crisp goat cheese,
rosemary and chive crust. Braised in
Barolo and demiglace, short ribs were
sweet and tender and edged with bits of
extra flavorful fat.
A butterflied, baked veal chop piccata
suffered from dense breading and a tired
caper and lemon sauce. Long Island
Duck Two Ways delivered an invitingly
moist confit leg but a dry, over-seared
breast, though the blackberry compote