Gazing from New Jersey across the Hudson River toward Manhattan, a city still riding out a “Hamilton” craze, is one founded by Alexander Hamilton himself: Paterson . Though it’s not the kind of place that lands on glossy lists of hot vacation destinations, it’s a city that tells a story of resilience and reinvention, played out along streets designed by Pierre L’Enfant and immortalized by William Carlos Williams. More important, the food is fabulous.
As a food writer who haunts family-run markets instead of T-shirt shops in search of vacation souvenirs, Paterson was a dream come true: neighborhoods crammed with bakeries, bodegas and butcher shops; the streets filled with the mingling scents of coffee, garlic and toasted pistachios. The city was also devoid of bearded bartenders sporting man-buns, an anti-hipster enclave that puts the focus on communities and businesses built by generations of immigrants, evidenced by the names of local politicians on yard signs in advance of a city council election: Akhtaruzzaman; Guzman; Cleaves; Khalique.
Boasting 52 ethnic populations among its 146,000 residents — including Bangladeshis, Syrians, Albanians, Peruvians, Dominicans, Jamaicans, Italians, African Americans, Jews and one of the largest Muslim populations in the United States — Paterson is rich in traditional foods, including tiny takeouts late at night dishing up the Peruvian fried rice known as arroz chaufa, in the Little Lima neighborhood, Dominican mamey milkshakes at El Sabor and the tiny cups of espresso served each Saturday morning at San Remo, where Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D) holds court with his constituents.
It was the unrelenting nagging of John Lawrence — a family friend and native Patersonian who worked on Capitol Hill for 38 years before retiring as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s chief of staff — that prompted me to plan a weekend jaunt to northern New Jersey with our respective spouses. In the weeks leading up to what can only be described as The Paterson Pilgrimage, our email inboxes were populated with messages from John : “Well, here we are nearly in April, and you know what that means! Can you stand the excitement?” Itineraries were created, hotel rooms booked, dogsitters scheduled.
We arrived at lunchtime, just as Hamilton did on his first visit in 1778, when he picnicked on cold ham, tongue and, according to an aide-de-camp, “some excellent grog” with George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette along the banks of the Passaic River overlooking the 77-foot natural waterfalls. Eschewing the tongue, John led us to Libby Lunch, a counter located steps away from Hamilton’s picnic spot, home of the Hot Texas Weiner. It is a deep-fried hot dog topped with a cinnamon-and-cayenne-spiked meaty Bolognese known locally as “Greek sauce,” along with spicy mustard and chopped onions.
“As far as I know, the Hot Texas Weiner has no relationship to Texas,” John told us, “but Libby’s is the kind of place where you’ll find a judge and a guy who just got off a street-cleaning detail sitting at the counter together. It’s the perfect place to start understanding the city.”
Just outside Libby’s is Paterson’s pride and joy, the Great Falls of the Passaic River. It is the centerpiece of local officials’ campaign to establish Paterson as a tourist destination and the impetus for Hamilton’s plan to create a manufacturing center that would lessen America’s dependence on European factories. Now a national park nestled amid abandoned redbrick mills, the falls are majestic in their natural beauty, one of the most powerful waterfalls east of the Mississippi.
“If Thomas Jefferson had lunched here,” John quipped, “he would have just seen a bucolic landscape. Hamilton saw a natural source of power upon which to build an economy.”
Paterson lies in the valley under the Passaic Falls/its spent waters forming the outline of his back. He / lies on his right side, head near the thunder / of the waters filling his dreams! Eternally asleep, / his dreams walk about the city where he persists/incognito.
So begins the epic Williams poem “Paterson,” published in five volumes between 1946 and 1958, setting the scene for Hamilton’s vision of industrializing the land along the banks of the Passaic River, harnessing the natural power of the Great Falls to welcome a flood of manufacturers, producing cotton, firearms, and locomotives, not to mention so much silk that Paterson came to be called “Silk City” during the 19th century. (Literary footnote: The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet also wrote the introduction to “Howl,” the most famous book by a fellow poet-son of Paterson, Allen Ginsberg.)
Okay, Hamilton didn’t technically found the city, but as treasury secretary in 1791, he chartered the Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures, or S.U.M., promoting the establishment of a planned city that he called a “national manufactory.” Rather than naming his brainchild after himself, Hamilton chose to solidify support for his plan by conferring that honor on William Paterson, who was then governor of New Jersey and signed the 1792 charter that established the Town of Paterson. The original plan for the city, dreamed up by French engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant, envisioned an ambitious system of aqueducts, raceways, and radiating roads; L’Enfant was later dismissed in favor of Hamilton’s friend Peter Colt, who eschewed grand plans in favor of practical solutions that would get mills quickly up and running.
“There’s a sense of civic pride here today that I don’t remember when I was growing up,” John said as we wandered along the rocky banks of the Passaic after lunch. “Certainly the interest in ‘Hamilton’ on Broadway has helped. People are recognizing the historic significance of this city.”
From the falls, we headed to Little Ramallah, a bustling neighborhood with Turkish, Syrian, Palestinian, Lebanese and Jordanian flavor and a Main Street lined with halal butchers and shawarma shops. John came prepared with a large cooler packed with ice, which he filled with fresh sausages, baklava and marinated chicken kebabs from Fattal’s Syrian Bakery. I loaded up on gallons of Lebanese olive oil, monster-size jars of sumac, fresh green almonds and sour plums, and spreadable halvah mixed with cocoa, a Middle Eastern version of Nutella.
We feasted on kibbe, baba ghanouj and fateh — a delicious mishmash of chickpeas, yogurt and toasted pine nuts served on a toasted pita — at Syraan Restaurant, just down the street from Fattal’s. I had one request: a visit to Gelotti for dessert. Only a fan of “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” would want to go there. Now you know my guilty secret. The handmade gelato, especially the Cassata Siciliana — a ricotta-based confection spiced with cinnamon and studded with candied fruits — did not disappoint.
Ricotta took center stage the next morning at Cyndia’s, a popular local breakfast spot in the nearby borough of Totowa, where ricotta pancakes were topped with fresh apricot jam. Then we made our way up Garrett Mountain to Lambert Castle, the former home of one of Paterson’s manufacturing barons, where we had a clear view of the Passaic Valley and the Manhattan skyline 15 miles away. Filled with exquisite architectural details and period furnishings, it also boasts the world’s largest spoon collection, totaling more than 5,400 items. This strangely fascinating trove featured nautical and religious motifs, as well as spoons made from shells and animal horns, or boasting mechanical parts, such as miniature windmills with moving blades.
Before heading home, we toured east Paterson, which was a largely Jewish neighborhood when John — and his father before him — was growing up, the landscape retelling the saga of the city’s burgeoning immigrant population. Driving past his childhood home, John pointed out the Jewish bakery that is now a Jamaican restaurant and the mom-and-pop grocery store whose shelves are now filled with Hispanic and Middle Eastern products.
“There’s a lot of symbolism there,” John said. “Paterson has a permanent cultural mix, but it’s a changing kaleidoscope of colors.”
Hartke is a food writer and editor based in Washington, D.C.
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Saddle Brook Marriott
138 New Pehle Ave., Saddle Brook
Interesting hotels are not particularly abundant in the Paterson area, so we opted for the Saddle Brook Marriott, five miles from Paterson Great Falls National Park and with a welcoming bar where we could grab a glass of wine at the end of our busy touring day . Rooms from about $130.
98 McBride Ave., Paterson
A local institution, stop here to sample the Hot Texas Weiner — less than $4 with fries — and get a cold glass of birch beer on draft.
Syraan Restaurant & Cafe
1090 Main St., Paterson
This is one of many Middle Eastern restaurants in Paterson’s Little Ramallah neighborhood, offering traditional dishes like kibbe, kofta kebabs and stewed lamb. One of its specialties is the Syraan Barbecue for $29.99, which could easily feed four along with a couple of appetizers. Alcohol is not available.
2 Union Ave., Paterson
If you’re a fan of “The Real Housewives of New Jersey,” then you’ll remember when Kathy Wakile hosted an event at Gelotti during Season 4 — and even if you’re not a fan, go to Gelotti anyway for an array of homemade gelatos from fragola to ciccolato, at about $4.The Cassata Siciliana flavor is a standout.
169 Union Blvd., Totowa
You’ll find Cyndia’s packed with locals at breakfast and lunch, so grab a tiny cup of espresso at San Remo just down the block while you wait for a table. Pesto-infused egg whites with portobello mushrooms ($9) have a savory herbaceous punch and the ricotta pancakes with homemade apricot jam ($7) are lightly browned and not too sweet.
Paterson Great Falls National Park
72 McBride Ave., Paterson
The site of the Great Falls of the Passaic River, the 77-foot-high waterfall is the second most powerful east of the Mississippi, offering plenty of natural beauty for visitors. There’s also plenty of history to learn about the former “Silk City” through free park ranger-led and self-guided tours. Be sure to walk along the Mill Mile, which includes the Rogers Locomotive and Machine Works, Rosen Mill and the Paterson Museum, and take a peek at the slated-for-renovation Hinchliffe Stadium.
Fattal’s Syrian Bakery
975 Main St., Paterson
Maybe not everybody goes to a grocery store when on vacation, but Fattal’s is no ordinary supermarket. Now nearing its 50th anniversary, the Middle Eastern bakery boasts dozens of different flavors of halvah, freshly-baked baklava and cookies, halal meats, and several aisles packed with spices, olive oil, canned goods and nuts.
3 Valley Rd., Paterson
Once the private home of silk baron Catholina Lambert and now operated by the Passaic County Historical Society, this 1893 mansion was built in the Medieval Revival style and houses an impressive art collection and historic artifacts. Located on Garrett Mountain overlooking Paterson, Lambert Castle offers expansive views of Passaic Valley and the Manhattan skyline. Don’t miss the world’s largest spoon collection. Open mid-December through mid-October. Admission, $5; tickets for children ages 5 to 17, $3; younger, free.