SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — When New Jersey Monthly closed the last round of voting for its pizza poll, an annual contest to determine who makes the best pizza in the state, South Orange’s Reservoir Restaurant came out on top. And The Villager’s food review team agrees. After eating some of Reservoir’s pies at an office pizza party, we decided to learn more about the 80-year-old restaurant, which uses only the finest ingredients in recipes handed down through three generations of one family.
The Italian restaurant has been sitting on West South Orange Avenue for the last 53 years, and has been family-owned for its entire existence. In 1935, Vincenza Agnellino opened the restaurant in Newark on the corner of 14th Street and 9th Avenue. Thirty years later, her son took over the business and wanted to expand, ultimately moving the restaurant to South Orange. In 1994, Vincenza Agnellino’s grandchildren, Bill Agnellino and Barbara Cammarata took over the restaurant and have been sharing the business ever since.
Now run by the brother and sister team, Reservoir has become a mainstay in the community.
“It’s a positive community, it’s a great one to be a part of,” Agnellino told us in an April 19 interview with The Villager. “It was an honor to win,” he said of the NJ Monthly poll.
Cammarata agreed, saying that many customers at the restaurant have been eating there for a long time. The restaurant has never won an award before, according to Agnellino.
“It was exciting having our customers support us,” Cammarata told us in an April 24 phone interview. “They’ve been coming for a long time. We’ve been in business for a long time, so it was nice to win it.”
While both siblings have a few memories from Reservoir’s time in Newark, they mostly remember helping out in the restaurant in South Orange when they were teenagers. Agnellino said his uncle taught him how to make pizza dough when he was a teenager, and he hasn’t looked back since.
“I was 13 when my uncle taught me how to make the pizza dough, so it’s been almost 50 years,” he said. “I’ve been doing it ever since.”
“I remember a little,” Cammarata said. “I do remember my grandmother was a very special person and very generous. And now we’re the third generation running it.”
Upon entering the restaurant, we saw the history of the Agnellino family laid out in a photo display on the walls. Weddings, christenings, Christmas gatherings, baptisms, parties and just about every occasion you could imagine was documented through photos of smiling relatives. Just viewing this wall made us feel like family, too.
Agnellino and Cammarata share the cooking and day-to-day functions of running the restaurant. They make everything fresh every day. Pizza dough, meatballs and pastries are all made the day that customers eat them — and it comes through in the delicious tastes of their fare. Cammarata said that there are probably a few hundred people at Reservoir every day, especially on the weekends.
“We freehand and roll them ourselves,” she said about the way she and the staff make their Italian meatballs. “We don’t use a scooper or anything. And our portions are pretty generous. We go by the old way of cooking family style.”
Monday is “create your own pasta night,” when customers can build their own dinner, choosing vegetables and the type of pasta and sauce, before it’s served in a large family-style bowl to share.
The cooking style fits in with the atmosphere of the restaurant. From the moment we walked in, we felt comfortable and welcomed. Soft Frank Sinatra music was playing in the background as we sat at a table in front of the window, looking out over downtown South Orange. The tables were nicely spaced and we had found parking rather easily, with a municipal lot located across the street making dining at Reservoir very convenient for those driving to the venue.
Even if parking were difficult to find, it would all be worth it for the great food. Cammarata told us that she enjoys experimenting with different fish dishes, and has built non-Italian dishes into the menu for variation.
“You try and change things for the better, I think,” she said. “We try and incorporate other things and vary the menu so it’s not all Italian. We try a lot of fish and we make different desserts.”
All of this variety made looking through the menu a near Sisyphean task. Although we had only recently had the pizza at our office party, we knew we needed to order it again. Pizza is a must at Reservoir. We ordered Tony salads to go with it.
Shortly after ordering, our server, Linda, arrived with our selections. The pizza was steaming hot, embracing us with its aroma. We started with our salads to give the pizza a chance to cool down. Sesame bread and butter arrived at the same time.
The Tony salad had chopped lettuce, mozzarella, sharp provolone, salami, pepperoni, tomato, cucumber, red onion and olives in a garlic parmesan vinaigrette dressing. The salad was a meal in itself; its fresh ingredients blended together wonderfully and the dressing took the salad over the top. As for the pizza, there aren’t words that can describe how delicious it was. The pizza is made with the most flavorful sauce with a generous supply of top-notch mozzarella. To call it “heaven on earth” would not be an exaggeration.
After starting with such amazing dishes, we were worried we would be let down by our entrees — we were not. All of the entrees were outstanding. Our team ordered chicken parm with spaghetti, veal marsala with spaghetti, and penne with tomato sauce and field greens.
We knew we would not be leaving Reservoir hungry when we saw the serving sizes — the penne and field greens was practically a mountain. The chicken parm was mouthwatering and its accompanying spaghetti, which was steaming hot, was out of this world. The fragrance of the wine and mushrooms in the veal marsala was intoxicating; the veal was fresh and tender. The penne and field greens was a real treat to the palate. This great restaurant definitely knows how to treat its customers right.
Luckily for us, when we arrived Agnellino was making his four-berry pie, which had a sweet blend of strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries inside a homemade and flaky crust. It arrived from the oven freshly made and the aroma filled the air. It was terrific and a perfect ending to a very fulfilling meal.
Agnellino described what the Reservoir serves as “comfort food” and we could not agree more. He said he plans for Reservoir to remain a fixture in South Orange.
“Everyone always walks out with a bag” of leftovers, he said. “I like being around people, it’s a good feeling to give people what they want.”
Reservoir Restaurant is located at 106 W. South Orange Ave. in South Orange. The restaurant is open for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. It is open for dinner from 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. on Monday and Sunday, and from 4:30 to 10 p.m. on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Article written by staff writer Amanda Valentovic and restaurant reviewer Anne Santos; Photos by David VanDeventer