By Aida Toro
Temperatures are rising little by little and flowers and tree leaves are blooming...this means one thing: Spring. With Spring right around the corner, many travel to quaint towns or cities that will provide outdoor seating. One of the best locales to welcome the up and coming season is South + Pine in Morristown, New Jersey. Morristown, located in Morris County, has its famous Green Downtown, which received its name due to a 2.5-acre park being located in the center of the downtown, dating to the early 18th Century.
Streets in the downtown such as South Street, are surrounded by shops, restaurants, condominiums, and so much more. South + Pine is located right on the corner of South Street and Pine Street. Owned and operated by Chef Leia Gaccione, South + Pine is a place one will just want to walk into for a date night or a brunch with family and friends. When I walked into South + Pine, Gaccione greeted my guest and me with such warmth. We went after brunch was over which was the icing on the cake because the place was closed down for us while the employees at the restaurant organized for dinner time. Meanwhile, Gaccione began preparing a series of appetizers, main courses, and desserts for us.
Gaccione opened up South + Pine in May of 2015. She was inspired to become a chef because she was always one to watch culinary idols like Julia Child and Chef Martin Yan of “Yan Can Cook”. Her journey as a Chef is very inspiring, all the way from how she ended up applying to culinary school to how she went under prominent Chef Bobby Flay’s wing for eight years. She chose Morristown as South + Pine’s location after looking at a variety of locales in Manhattan, Montclair, and in Hudson County, New Jersey. Carl Ruiz, a friend of Gaccione’s who starred in “Guy’s Grocery Games”, took her to check out a restaurant called Havana Koi, which used to sit in South + Pine’s current location. Once she checked out the space, the rest is history.
When walking into South + Pine, you’ll feel as if you are walking into a set on Chip and Joanna Gaines’ “Fixer Upper”. The restaurant’s decor consists of barn doors, wooden tables, as well as an abstract piece of art made up of pots and pans that Ruiz gave Gaccione along with so much more. She received inspiration from Pinterest. Gaccione describes the restaurant’s aesthetic rustic, shabby chic, and romantic. Since I arrived once brunch was over, the time of day was transitioning from afternoon to evening, which of course made South + Pine feel romantic since the lights are dim at night. Not to mention, that the music played at the restaurant is lively and fun as a lot of 80’s tunes played on the Sunday I stopped by.
“I am truly inspired by the seasons and by eating other people’s food,” said Gaccione in regards to the inspiration behind her ever-changing menu.
The appetizers Gaccione made for us were: Polenta Fries, Burrata, Spicy Lamb Meatballs, and the Avocado Toast. The Polenta Fries were chewy and savory. After every bite, they melted in my mouth, as I thought they had somewhat of a Parmesan cheese taste, which of course you can’t go wrong with. The Avocado Toast does not taste like the typical Avocado Toast you get at a cafe. This Avocado Toast looked greener than ever and had such a decadent taste since the avocado was very creamy. Rather than being topped with a poached egg, this avocado toast was topped with bacon and scallions, which was the cherry on top. The Burrata contained a piece of fresh mozzarella cheese drizzled with olive oil, roasted beets, Meyer lemon, fennel, pistachio, and cranberry jam. The word to describe South + Pine’s Burrata is REFRESHING. If a dish has beets and mozzarella cheese, then it is nothing but heaven on earth. The final appetizer was the spicy lamb meatballs which had an interesting taste as they did not have a strong taste like typical dishes offered at Greek restaurants. The meatballs were toothsome and addicting, especially after dipping a piece into the Greek yogurt and cucumber sauce they are laid on top of.
After we were done with all of the appetizers, Gaccione brought us one of her all-time favorite salads which is the Brussels Sprout Salad. When peoples think of brussel sprouts, reactions such as “this is boring” or “brussels don’t taste great” come to mind. However, Gaccione outdid herself with the Brussel Sprout Salad she has on her South + Pine menu. The salad is the definition of a protein-packed meal. It is topped with a poached egg and contains bacon lardons, blue cheese, radish, and honey Dijon vinegar. The brussels sprouts in this salad were shredded, and of course, this salad is one I would have every single day. It was moderately creamy and enjoyable because you cannot go wrong with a poached egg, bacon and blue cheese in a dish.
Once the salad was in our bellies, Gaccione brought us three different main courses. Two of them were brunch dishes which were the South + Pine Huevos Rancheros and Fried Chix, known as Chicken and Waffles. The Huevos Rancheros were flavorful and had a smoky taste since these contain smoked radishes, which made the dish super comforting, especially since cold temperatures are still lingering around. As for the Fried Chix, the waffles are made out of sweet potatoes that are topped with fried chicken and drizzled with harissa honey. This dish was sweet and tangy as the harissa honey played a big role in this dish. Harissa is a hot sauce or paste used in North African cuisine, made from chili peppers, paprika, and olive oil...mix this with honey and you have a sauce you’ll be addicted to. I felt the Fried Chix wasn’t a heavy dish like the usual Chicken and Waffles you’ll have at brunches since the waffles were light due to being made out of sweet potato.
Lastly, Gaccione sealed the deal and provided us with two desserts: Sweet Potato Blondie and Ricotta Cake. The Sweet Potato Blondie made the late afternoon we spent with Gaccione feel like Thanksgiving all over again. This dessert tasted like a slice of pumpkin or sweet potato pie, even though there wasn’t any pumpkin in it. It contains bourbon caramel and maple candied pecans, which are definitely fall and winter staples. The warmth, gooeyness, and moistness of this dessert was simply magical. The Ricotta Cake was as soft as a down pillow and creamy like custard and was a melt-in-your-mouth type of dessert that was topped with grapefruit slices and a dollop of light whipped cream. I also tasted hints of citrus from the grapefruit after every bite, which paired well with the ricotta.
Overall, the experience at South + Pine was more than a delicious afternoon. Gaccione made us feel right at home and treated us as if we were family members or lifelong friends, which is always her main objective when attending patrons. If you’re looking to ring in the up and coming spring season right and happen to be in the tri-state area, visit South + Pine and have your palette ready to experience a taste of Gaccione’s cooking and hospitality.
Aida's Food Diaries, A Millennial Foodie is a monthly column.