Anyone like me, whose idea of an Italian restaurant was formed in the tri-state area of New York-New Jersey-Connecticut, will feel at home at La Sicilia in Mérida.
And anyone might also be a little thrown to see the absence of Italian-Americans on staff. You’ll be welcomed by a nice family from Oaxaca — by way of New Jersey.
“My dad moved to the United States in 1990, when he was just 14 years old,” the owner’s son, Kristopher Juarez, explains. US-born Kristopher’s English sounds just like mine. It’s his first language.
“He came to make something of himself and basically live out the American Dream. He had been working some jobs here and there until he started working at an Italian restaurant named Buon Appetite in Bayonne, New Jersey. That is where he started to get his love for cooking, and it just grew from there.”
In 2005, Kristopher’s father and uncle opened the original La Sicilia in Belleville, about 25 minutes from Tony Soprano’s house. It remains open with his uncle and cousins in charge, says Kristopher.
“Eventually, we all came to vacation here in Mérida a few times, circa 2015-2021, and we absolutely loved it, but we noticed that most Italian restaurants were not exactly what we were used to,” he says.
Italian-American restaurants, particularly in the tri-state, take a more comfort-food approach to their menu. Dishes are strongly influenced by southern Italy but with a distinctly New York metro flavor. It’s not exactly what diners find in Palermo.
Chicken Savoy, for example, is native only to the Belleville area and has been dubbed “the unofficial state dish of New Jersey.” It’s a simple, unassuming plate with browned, crusted chicken pieces and a tart, brown vinegar sauce.”
But their signature dish is Chicken Monte Bianco, which was imported from the Belleville restaurant. The dish consists of two pieces of chicken breast battered and fried in olive oil, cooked in a cherry wine cream sauce and mixed with fresh marinara sauce, topped with spinach, a slice of tomato, prosciutto, and mozzarella melted on top served with fresh fettuccine pasta. That’s a classic layer-on-layer dish that’s expected in any self-respecting New Jersey Italian restaurant.
“I think what makes our menu different from the other Italian restaurants here in Mérida is that we are not trying to do anything really fancy. We wanted to do something where anyone can come in and feel like they are at home,” Kristopher says.
No real Italian-American restaurant in New Jersey would be authentic without framed photos of the famous or semi-famous.
The original Sicilia has a photo wall of local celebrities like MLB umpire Phil Cuzzi, “who is one of my dad’s best friends,” and ‘Sopranos’ actors such as Steve Schirripa and the late James Gandolfini, Kristopher says.
To the left of the entrance, aside from the photos, there’s a big map of New Jersey painted on its wall. At first, I thought this must be Tabasco or Oaxaca. But no. It’s actually the Garden State, complete with its major cities and highways.
It’s a great conversation piece, Kristopher says.
“The map was my dad’s idea,” Kristopher says. “He feels so grateful for what he was able to accomplish in New Jersey and never wants us to forget where we came from and how it all started.”
La Sicilia is in the Santiago neighborhood of Mérida, Calle 59 between 64 and 66. Facebook @LaSiciliaMerida