WEST ORANGE, NJ – Nearly 50 local restaurants, wineries and spirit providers and more than 200 guests filled The Manor in West Orange for the North Essex Chamber of Commerce (NECC) Taste of Essex event on April 11. Of all the establishments, which were located in or had a connection with Essex County, ShopRite Caterers of Caldwell was named the third-best savory provider in the county.

Guests roamed the first floor of the Manor on Monday, sampling a wide array of cuisine ranging from Thai to Italian, desserts that ranged from gluten free cookies to cupcakes to ice cream, and an array of distilled spirits and wines, including a craft-brewed vodka and whiskey made in New Jersey.

Holly Kaplansky, President of the North Essex Chamber of Commerce, said this is her fifth Taste of Essex and said not only do they get better each year, but it is also an event where everyone wins.

Sign Up for E-News

“I think it is a good thing for the restaurants and all the different vendors who come who showcase what they provide, and for the people who come who can sample the different cuisine available,” said Kaplansky. “A portion of the proceeds of the night goes to the NECC scholarship fund, so several lucky seniors will be getting $1000 this year, and some of these monies will help to support that.”

In addition to showing off what they had, the establishments were also being judged in several categories, including presentation and best sweet and/or savory, among others.

For some, the event was a chance to surprise people or change perceptions. Jim Riley with ShopRite of West Caldwell and his team were featuring high-end catering from the supermarket, to get people to think differently about possibilities.

“We have accomplished chefs working there, and we need to get the word out about it,” he said, adding that this event was a great way to showcase the foods people would not think about when thinking about the supermarket.

Claremont Distilled Spirits in Fairfield is a brand new craft distillery. Amy Sutton said the event was “especially important for us as a new business, because people don’t know there’s a vodka or a whiskey made in New Jersey, so our goal is to get out there and touch the community.”

This was also the first Taste of Essex for many of the establishments, some of which have only been open for a short time. Among them was DiSopra, a new restaurant in Caldwell.

“We just wanted to get the word out. We’re open since September, and it’s good exposure for us,” said John Giuffre.

Vital Restaurant’s Kanika Williams can attest to the event bringing in awareness and customers. She said this was their first Taste of Essex. Having attended the Taste of Montclair earlier this year, she said events like these “bring a lot of business, and [they] will definitely do it again.”  

Brandon Diaz of West Orange’s Benji’s was at this specific Taste for the first time, but has done others.

“It has helped our business a lot, because we have been able to branch out to other people who are not around us,” he said, adding that he feels West Orange is limited with fast-food places. “We try to bring a Mexican store that feels authentic to Hispanics, but also make it Americanized so people won’t be scared to try Mexican food because [they think] it is too spice. We try to make all our customers feel comfortable.”

Eugene of Greenpoint Juicery of Verona said this type of event was beneficial for his smaller company because “you meet new people, new potential customers, and it’s great.”

Another first-time participant was Louie Ritacco of Luna Wood Fire Tavern in Nutley, who said he simply wanted to “let people taste what we can do, keep it nice and simple and hope everybody likes it.”

Eva Merck of Ah’ Pizz said this was her first Taste of Essex, but her fourth event this year.

“I think it is nice to get a nice rapport with the other business owners, try what they are offering, and it’s a nice night out for everyone,” he said.

For Julie Johnson of Cakeaholic Obsession in Montclair, this was also a first-time Taste of Essex experience. She liked it because “it gives us more exposure and people know where we are.”

Danny Campeas owns Stuffed Burgers, which has been open for a year and a half. This was his second Taste of Essex, and he says events like this “give me a lot of connections, which even more than customers helps drive business.” He also said he felt the people who came to Taste were looking for his higher end food, “and we get to cater directly to them.”

Some of the participants have done this numerous times in the past. For John Giglio of Pallazzo, although he has taken part in Taste of Essex five times, this was his return to the event since his last time in 2007. He said scheduling conflicts always were a problem, but he was glad to be back.

“It definitely reaches out to different people and hopefully brings in business,” he said.

Highlawn Pavilion’s Executive Chef Mitchell Altholz has been here numerous times as well.

“It’s about community—we have three local farms, and it is very important for us to be a part of this community,” he said.

Chef Alex of Just Jake’s has been to Taste of Essex a lot in the past, and said even now that the event is fun for him.

“Anything that puts our name out there and shows people what we really do is always fun,” he said.

Ritesh Patel of The Brick Lane Curry House in Montclair is also a first time Taste of Essex presenter who loved the event.

“It’s brilliant, we’ve had so many people come who have never had Indian food or heard of our place in Montclair, and we’ve had a few customers who are regulars say, ‘we’re glad to see you’re here,’” he said.

Nicky Mesiah of Miss Nicky’s Gourmet Toffee said she is seeing a bigger market now for things like vegan and gluten free.

“I always did healthy, my business has always been about health,” she said. “People who are healthy want healthy food. Many vegan and gluten free foods use corn or soy or rice…I use organic millet or organic flax.”

Mario Russo of the host house, The Manor, was premiering a new signature dish that will be available on the Chef’s Menu, with crispy bay scallops, smoked pineapple, red pepper, field greens and vinaigrette.

Jesse Arteche presented his head chef, Chef Yuie for Noodle Pan. He said they were there to present their dishes for the competition. Their entries were a chicken pad thai and “sidewalk fried rice.”

Many presenters expect to see people who come to this event at their locations. Bethania Goncal of Solar Do Minho Restaurant said she’s seen people she met at this event come to her restaurant after.

“We had people coming by and saying that they came here, so it was a good thing, so we came back.”

Others, like Julie of Mark and Julie’s Ice Cream, noted they give back to their local community. “We have after sports specials, so if kids come in after their sports, practices, games, they get 15 percent off.”

She also mentioned that Mark & Julie’s was voted Best Ice Cream in Essex County in the Suburban Essex Magazine Best Ice Cream contest.

Other presenters offered discounts as well. Jeffrey Wetzel, store manager of Oil and Vinegar in Montclair, said this first Taste of Essex should be as good as his experience with other Taste events.

“People see us and like what they see, and they like the 10-percent coupon and come on down to see more of what we have in the store,” he said.

In addition to the food, there were also chair massages available for those who wanted to release the stress of deciding which food to try next, as well as multiple spirit companies and hand rolled cigars.

Rob Menniker of Maxim Cigars, this was the place to be.

“It’s great exposure, and the Taste of Essex is always an even you put on your calendar…we always have to be a part of it,” he said.

And the story behind Focus Wine Company was intriguing, not just for their product, but for the history behind it. Sky Labrot, VP of Charitable Giving, told the story.

“Joe Caruso, the owner, was born with congenital cataracts and Dr. Shea helped him save his sight as a young boy,” she said, also stating that one of the wines was named for the doctor. “No one knew this was genetic, so Joe’s two daughters were born with the same condition. They went through 19 different operations at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, so Joe wanted to create a brand where 10% of all proceeds get donated back to Children’s Hospital.”

Summing up the evening, Michael Daniels, Executive Vice President of the NECC, said the event succeeded on many levels.

“We’re trying to accomplish multiple things: be a resource for the community at large and the business community, have a great event to socialize with your peers and just have some fun,” he said. “There is an outstanding committee who planned for months, and met every week in the last six to make sure tonight’s event had great participants and went smoothly.”

Daniels was especially pleased to see the new businesses that participated this year, but he’s already looking forward to next year.

“Probably half the people here are first-timers,” he said. “So far we can likely say this is our best Taste event yet. Next year, stay tuned for some more surprises!”

At the end of the night, the following were judged best in these categories:


1)      Frank Anthony's

2)      Verona Inn

3)      Shoprite Caterers of Caldwell

4)      Vital 


1)      Applegate Farm

2)      Baked Bouquet

3)      Sonny's Italian Restaurant (denville)

4)      Ah' Pizz



Click on any business name below to be taken directly to their websites for more information:

Above , Ah' Pizz , Applegate Farm , Bagelwich , Baked Bouquet, Benji's Tequeria Mexican GrillBill and Harry's Chinese Cuisine , Cakeaholic Obsession, CATB Liquor, Claremont Distilled Spirits,Cricket Hill Brewery , Cucina 555 , DiSopra Restaurant , Focus Wine CompanyFrank Anthony's , Greek Taverna , Green Point Juicery LLC , Highlawn PavilionHoney Baked Ham , Just Jake's , Krunch KitchenLuna Wood Fire TavernThe Manor , Mark and Julie's Ice Cream , Miss Jennie Mae's , Miss Nicky's ToffeeNarda's Ginger Punch , NoodlefanOak Barrel Pub , Oil & Vinegar

Olive That! and More , Palazzo Restaurant , Purity Vodka , Sandwiches Unlimited

Scotchies Jerk Center , ShopRite Caterers Caldwell , Solar Do Minho RestaurantSonny's Italian Restaurant , Spuntino Wine Bar & Italian TapasStuffed Grass Fed Burgers , Thai Elephant , Tierney's Copperhouse , Verona Inn , Vital Restaurant