Nutrition nannies scorn hot dogs, but there are plenty of happy eaters who adore them. We are two of them, who think hot dogs truly are America’s most distinctive dish. In support of that belief, consider this fine fact: while national chains have managed to standardize hamburgers, steaks, fried chicken, and ersatz Asian, Mexican, and Italian food so that they appeal to common-denominator palates everywhere, no such thing has ever been done with hot dogs. Nor will it likely ever be. People’s loyalty to their own unique style of dog is unwavering, and the firmament of frankfurters from coast to coast is a universe of near infinite variety, from the Coney Islands of Detroit to the Scrambled Dogs of Georgia, and from neon-red Snappers in Maine to Sonoran Sammy dogs in Tucson.
But no state has a greater variety than New Jersey. Of all of its eminent wieners, from the glorious rippers of Rutt’s Hut to the Texas hots of Paterson, none are more extraordinary than the Italian hot dogs of Newark. And nowhere are they better than at Jimmy Buff’s.
James Racioppi, proprietor of Jimmy Buff’s, believes it was his grandparents, James and Mary Racioppi, who created the Italian hot dog (also known as a Newark dog) at their home at the beginning of the 1930s. “My grandfather played cards every week with his associates,” Racioppi explains. It was his grandmother’s responsibility to feed them, so she concocted especially satisfying hot dog sandwiches that were, in fact, meals in a bun. “After a while, people started coming just to eat,” Racioppi says. “Forget the card game! In 1932 they opened a store at 14th and 9th to sell sandwiches. That was the beginning.” As for the name of the store, Racioppi reveals: “My grandfather Jimmy was an excellent card player. He was known for his talent to bluff, but with their Italian accents, it got lost in translation and they called him ‘Jimmy Buff.’”
The sandwich is like no other, and scarcely resembles any typical hot dog. It is built not in a long bun, but in a half-loaf of fresh, tawny-crusted Italian bread. Like a muffaletta, the bread must be chewy enough to stay tough when wrapped around oily foods. The half-circle of bread gets squeezed open to become a pocket like a huge, spongy pita. Into the pocket goes a pair of all-beef hot dogs (singles are also available). The dogs have been fried in soybean oil until their exterior skin begins to develop a sensuous crunch. Atop the tube steaks are added great heaps of onions and red and green peppers that have been sautéed until limp, plus a double handful of crisp-fried potato chunks. Each ingredient is forked directly from the frying cauldron or griddle into the sandwich, which is why the bread needs oomph—to absorb drippin’s from the garlicky dogs and sweet vegetables. Optional condiments include mustard, marinara sauce, and fire-hot onion relish, as well as ketchup. (Although ketchup is taboo on many of the nation’s top dogs—it is a virtual felony in Chicago—it makes some sense here, considering how it complements the fried potatoes that are such an essential element of the sandwich.)
Today, a handful of quick-eats joints in and around Newark specialize in the signature sandwich. The bread is similar at all of them, bought from nearby bakeries, where it is known as pizza bread; and the hot dogs are slim, all-beef tubes that are always deep-fried. But each eatery has its own signature. Charlie’s Famous in Kenilworth piles in peppers but slices rather than chunks its potatoes and serves them spilling out of the sides of the sandwich. Dickie Dee’s in the old North Ward cubes its spuds small enough that they deliver astounding crunch. At Jimmy Buff’s, the hot dogs and potatoes are deep fried separately and the peppers and onions are sautéed. One killer option offered at Jimmy Buff’s is a combo sandwich: rather than two hot dogs, you get a single dog and a rugged-edged fried Italian sausage. You also can get an all-sausage sandwich, an all-vegetable sandwich (hold the hot dogs) or, if your appetite is flagging, a simple “pushcart dog.”
Like so many hometown frankfurters around the country, Italian hot dogs are the sort of dish that inspires loyalty and craving beyond all reason. Newark expatriates who can’t get back to New Jersey have the option of mail ordering an Italian hot dog pack. For $79.95, Jimmy Buff’s will send 2 pizza breads (enough for 4 double sandwiches), 8 hot dogs, onions, peppers, potatoes, seasoning for soybean oil (which you provide), and mustard.
The hot dog pack is all right, if one is desperate, but there is nothing like eating these magnificent weenies at the source. What is so great about eating on premises, aside from the impeccable freshness of the bread, the crispness of the hot dogs themselves, and the radiant flavor maintained by each of the vegetables, is the family feel of the place. This is neighborhood dining at its warmest, where no matter how many pilgrims from elsewhere come to sample the unique regional specialty, there always seems to be a large cadre of locals hanging out and eating hot dog after hot dog. James Racioppi, whom many customers address as Jimmy Buff, presides over it all.