The scene: On July 20, 1969, history was forever changed when Neil Armstrong stepped out of his capsule and took “One giant leap for mankind.” Fifteen days earlier, the world of hot dog lovers was similarly changed when Tommy’s Italian Sausage opened in Elizabeth, New Jersey. It’s now been a beloved local institution for half a century.
Tommy’s looks like it should be on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, or part of the midway at a state fair, but it actually sits in downtown Elizabeth, the state’s largest city – and close to Newark for anyone who is hungry and heading out of the busy airport. It occupies a corner on a short block laid out at an unusual angle to frame a triangular town green in the middle of a traffic roundabout, complete with a statue of a canon. The green space doubles as Tommy’s dining room – the entire operation is to-go and there is no other convenient place nearby to enjoy your meal. Road trippers often eat on their car hoods, but most visitors are taking food back to their home or office, like the woman in line in front of me. When I asked her what she recommended, she replied, “I’ve been coming here since I was a little girl. Today I’m having the sausage. Tomorrow I’ll get the hot dog.” Simple enough.
It’s such a part of the fabric of Elizabeth that when the local police stopped by to pick up their dogs – always a good sign to Great American Bites, as beat officers eat out every day on their own turf and are known to be selective – they simply parked the cruiser in the middle of the street in front of Tommy’s and approached the window. That’s all there is here, an open sidewalk window where you order, wait and study the signs advertising the food, most notably “Potatoes in a Cup,” which bears the largest lettering. There is a small ATM next to the window and that’s about it, but if you pay attention you can also watch the amazing process that goes on inside, the making of one of the rarest hyper-regional dishes this column has enjoyed: the New Jersey Italian-style hot dog.