Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Sammy's offers a blast from its illicit past

At Sammy's Ye Old Cider Mill, a red and white building with no sign, right across the street from the actual cider mill in Mendham Township, the meals are as memorable as the restaurant's history.

It was a speakeasy during Prohibition, where local folks sipped illegal suds only a few years before it became a full-time restaurant.

"The cider mill was affiliated with the restaurant in the early days. It was a distillery for applejack whiskey, and then Prohibition came along and they couldn't sell it, so they built the bar downstairs and during Prohibition, they served," says Phil Fornaro, who owns the place with his sister, MaryAnn, and his brother, Sam.

"After (Prohibition), you could get a license to produce and serve," Fornaro says, "So my grandfather closed the mill and established a restaurant, and that's why we (as a restaurant) established in '33."

Interesting history aside, there's a reason why people keep coming back to Sammy's Ye Old Cider Mill time and time again, and it's because of the amazing food, which ranges from phenomenal steaks to a sensational pasta with vodka sauce.

"We basically have an American Continental menu," Fornaro says, "We serve dry-aged T-bone, an 11-ounce filet, a ribeye, which is also called a cowboy steak, veal chops, lamb chops, double-cut lamb chops, Maine lobsters, a version of shrimp scampi, and we (also) have a couple pasta dishes. We're known for a vodka pasta penne — we have people who have been to Italy, all over the world, and they say ours is the best."

And judging by the types of top-notch celebrities and sports stars who have found their way to a table at Sammy's (Did I mention the place doesn't even have a sign and it's purely populated by people because of word of mouth?), he must be telling the truth.

"Joe Piscopo was in last week. Scott Wolf, he was in 'Party of Five,' he's from New Jersey, he's been here," Fornaro says, casually counting off names of the many famous folks who have stepped into his restaurant to eat. "Malcolm Forbes, Jackie Onassis, Merv Griffin. They all used to come in here. Mike Tyson was in here, and that was when he first took the title."

But as much as the celebrity presence is nice in the building, which still looks very much like how it did back in the 1930s and 40s, Fornaro always smiles when talking about his local customers.

"We have a lot of repeat clientele, and when they move in, some of the Realtors are like, 'You gotta try Sammy's,' " Fornaro says, "So we get new customers, (too)."

Fornaro also brings up how the restaurant is more than just a place to get a great steak or pasta, but also a place where people come to meet and talk.

"If you look at (our business) card it says, 'Where Friends Meet,' and that was part of my grandfather's thing," Fornaro says, "We'll get people who come in . . . and they'll start talking to somebody, and the next week, they'll come in and have dinner with those people."

The building, which has the restaurant upstairs and the historic bar downstairs, has a very distinct look. On the exterior, it looks like it's just a house on the side of the road, so if you don't know what you're looking for, you already missed it. On the inside, the walls upstairs are adorned with a hand-painted mural of palm trees.

"An artist came around (during the '40s) who painted roadhouses," Fornaro says, "He was supposed to paint the surrounding areas, the mill across the street, but he drank a little bit and he painted palm trees."

One thing is certain. After 75 years of existence, from Prohibition times to now, people still love Sammy's.

"We have fourth-generation people coming in, and they come in with their grandchildren, and they remember the place from when they were kids," Fornaro says. "The place hasn't changed, and that's what they like about it, because it brings back the memories."

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