I grew up in Ridgefield. It’s a small town in the heart of North Jersey, just a few miles from the sweeping steel beams of the George Washington Bridge. Just about anybody who lives in this state can tell you that although small in size, its regions vary so greatly they may as well be different countries. In addition to a more New York-type attitude and some very congested highways, North Jersey has its own style of food. It can be best described as a sort of blue collar variant on comfort foods, with items like Italian heroes (not “subs” and DEFINITELY not “hoagies”), breakfast sandwiches on a hard roll, Taylor ham (NOT “pork roll”) and, of course, a variety of types of hot dogs all taking center stage.

These are the foods I grew up on, but unfortunately they have been all but impossible to find proper representations of here in South Jersey. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy the food here, but it’s definitely not the same.

But, in the last two weeks, a restaurant opened up in Atlantic City that may be the answer to my homesick food cravings — The Rock N Roll Café.

Nestled in the shadow of Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City, the rock ’n’ roll theme makes sense on the corner of Pacific and Pennsylvania avenues, but there is more to its concept than that. The Rock N Roll Café is the brainchild of Michael Selvanto. Selvanto is in his 60s and like me he grew up in the gritty paradise that is North Jersey and raised eating the same variety of simple, yet iconic foods as I was. And since opening the Rock N Roll Café, he has brought a variety of those great foods to Atlantic City. Why? “Because you can’t find nothing like that down here,” he says emphatically. Naturally I had to head down and try a few just to be sure of their authenticity.

A ham and cheese omelette made for a nice start, although I will admit that this can be found anywhere, and is not specific to any one part of the state (or even the country). But I followed that up with a true North Jersey legend — the Italian hot dog. For those of you who are unfamiliar, an Italian hot dog consists of either one or two natural casing hot dogs (preferably Sabrett brand) loaded into a half roll of Calandra’s pizza bread and topped with peppers, onions and a pile of round-cut potatoes. Its proper condiment is ketchup — not mustard — and it’s delicious. The one presented to me at Rock N Roll Café was right on the money, although I had a hard time finding the classic snap of a natural casing dog that is a crucial element in the dish. A variety of items on the menu can be made “Italian style” including sausages, burgers and cheesesteaks.

Next up was their “diamond style” burger — a tribute to the White Diamond burger joints that are popular up north. This nostalgia inducer is made by topping a large thinly pounded beef patty with diced grilled onions and cheese on a hard roll. Perfection.

What’s with the name?

Another fun aspect to the menu is the theming. There are Bon Jovi burgers, Sopranos apps, a deli sandwich section devoted to The Four Seasons and a series of salads dubbed “Bruce’s favorites” among others.

“Many of the items are based on things the actual celebrities enjoyed eating,” says Selvanto. How would he know? “I spent a lot of time in the music business,” he says modestly. That would be an understatement. The truth is that prior to becoming a restaurateur, Selvanto worked with some of the biggest A-listers in rock ’n’ roll. From singing with Elvis in the ’70s (“I met Elvis’ aunt and helped her change a flat tire and the rest is history,” to palling around with Jon Bon Jovi helping to produce the Live 8 concert in 2005, Selvanto has seen it all. He is a musician himself and plays just about every instrument you can imagine in a rock band, so it’s not surprising that the décor and theme at Rock N Roll Café pay tribute to the classic musicians of the 20th century. Awash in bright yellows, pinks and aquas and adorned with various musical instruments, the space pops with energy from the moment you enter.

The entire restaurant is loaded with memorabilia, including old records (some of which were donated by Elvis himself), knick knacks and more. Each table has a record attached to a place setting, if you hear that record playing while you are eating you get a free breakfast or lunch. But what’s inside makes up only a fraction of Selvanto’s collection. And he has plans to add even more.

“We are going to put a 57 Chevy on the roof,” says Selvanto of his aspirations for the summer of 2019.

Selvanto gradually meandered from the music business to the restaurant business, eventually opening Michael’s On The Bay in Barnegat. “But after Hurricane Sandy it became Michael’s IN the Bay,” he says with a slight chuckle. After a few years out of the business he is happy to be back. “I got out of this business and now I’m back. It’s like Al Pacino says in The Godfather “every time I try to get out, they pull me back in!”

The woman behind the man

Helping to make sure Selvanto’s plans become a reality is his business partner, Jacquelyn Winsten. Winsten has spent her career working in the hospitality industry. She partnered up with Selvanto after noticing that Atlantic City was in need of a great diner-style restaurant.

“It used to be that people would go out to a bar or to a show and then go to a diner afterward. There was no place like that here selling breakfast and lunch items. People shouldn’t have to go off the island to get great affordable food,” Winsten notes.

The Rock N Roll Café fills that need nicely. On weekdays they only open for breakfast and lunch, but come the weekend they stay open from 7 a.m. on Fridays through 6 p.m. on Sundays making it possible for those late night guests to grab a bite anytime. And while plenty of folks come here just for the food, you could easily spend hours checking out all the décor.

“This is a feel good restaurant. People come here and they get a combination of great food, great music and great prices.” Winsten says.

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