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A meatball sub at Spirito's Italian Diner in Carlsbad. Courtesy photo/Spirito's
A meatball sub at Spirito's Italian Diner in Carlsbad. Courtesy photo/Spirito's
ColumnsFood & WineLick the Plate

A slice of New Jersey at Spirito’s Italian Diner in Carlsbad

I’ve been daydreaming about a food-centric trip that includes a tour of old-school Italian diners, which are common in New Jersey.

Ideally, this trip would take place in October, when the chill in the air perfectly complements the hearty fare. Think chicken and eggplant parmesan, meatball subs, and ravioli. Long Beach Island is one possible destination, known for its local joints and the original Ron Jon Surf Shop.

J.R. O’Brien, whom you might remember from my sunset column, shares my obsession with Italian food and recently recommended Spirito’s Italian Diner in Carlsbad. After sampling some of the best chicken parm and meatball subs there, I had to learn more about its backstory.

New Jersey has a rich history of Italian immigrants who, along with others, created the beloved “Italian American” cuisine. I connected with Samuel Spirito, the great-grandson of founder Antonio Spirito. Antonio and his wife Gemma opened the original Spirito’s in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in 1932.

Chicken cutlet salad at Spirito's Italian Diner in Carlsbad. Courtesy photo/Spirito's
Chicken cutlet salad at Spirito’s Italian Diner in Carlsbad. Courtesy photo/Spirito’s

It began as a tavern, serving cheese, pies, sausage, and onion and pepper sandwiches to keep patrons in the bar rather than leaving hungry. This simple yet brilliant concept increased food sales and kept the customers drinking.

An interesting tidbit: Spirito’s in Elizabeth didn’t sell desserts because a mob-owned cannoli restaurant was on the same corner. Avoiding conflict with the mob was a prudent choice.

When Antonio and Gemma retired and moved to Florida, they left the restaurant to their three children. Samuel’s grandfather went straight into World War II and became a surgeon, so he didn’t work at the restaurant. Samuel’s father and uncle, however, learned to cook Spirito’s traditional recipes as teenagers. In the 1970s, Samuel’s parents moved to California and opened Spirito’s in Carlsbad Village in 1990. They sold that location in 2005 and have been at their current spot since 2008.

A fun piece of history: The Sopranos wanted to use the building for Arty Bucco’s restaurant in the show, but the Spirito family declined. The restaurant was finally sold in 2022 to a film company that is currently shooting a Vince Vaughn movie there called “Nonna’s.”

Now, onto the menu. Spirito’s most popular dishes include Ravioli, Lasagna, Chicken Parmigiana, and Eggplant Parmigiana. The Chicken Parm is butterflied, breaded, fried, and served on a French bread roll with cheese — one of the best I’ve had.

The Meatball Sub, which features two full meatballs cut in half and served with cheese, was showcased on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Spirito’s rolls the meatballs by hand in-house, as any legitimate Italian restaurant should.

Chicken parmesan sandwich at Spirito's Italian Diner in Carlsbad. Photo by David Boylan
Chicken parmesan sandwich at Spirito’s Italian Diner in Carlsbad. Photo by David Boylan

The pasta section features standout dishes like Spaghetti Clams in White Wine sauce and Spaghetti with Spirito’s original tomato gravy. Be sure to order a side of garlic bread to soak up the sauce and gravy.

The sandwich section offers a solid mix of Italian Cold Cuts, Prosciutto, Caprese, Eggplant Parmigiana, Sausage Sub, Focaccia Meatball Sub, and Old School Meatball Sub. Salads include Chicken Cutlet Arugula Salad and Rosemary Chicken Salad, along with classic Antipasto and Caprese options.

Sides include pasta fagioli soup, broccoli (chilled or hot), and garlic bread made with homemade country bread, olive oil, and chopped garlic. I haven’t explored their pizza options yet, but I expect them to be as solid as the rest of the menu.

Desserts are equally tempting, all made in-house, including Cheesecake, Cannoli, Lemon Posset, Bread Pudding, and Tiramisu.

While the location may seem random, off state Route 78 in the Carlsbad South Shopping Center, it’s worth the drive to taste authentic New Jersey culinary history.

Find them at 2508 El Camino Real, Carlsbad.

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