PJ Monte Talks About the Intersection of Tomato Sauce & Family Tradition
For over 100 years The Monte Family has been engrained in the fabric of New York’s Italian-American dining culture. What began in Brooklyn as a family-run joint serving the local community grew to become a popular eatery for New York’s elite.
After more than 60 years in Brooklyn and an expansion East in 1956 to Montauk to own and operate the iconic Gurney’s Inn, the Monte’s tradition continues today. It’s a tradition three generations in and one that PJ Monte wants to keep sharing, both within its New York roots and beyond. He knows his family has created something special which is why he now jars and sells the tried (by Sinatra and the like) and true Monte’s Sauce.
PJ spoke with us about how his own journey within the family business began, what makes their recipe different from most others, and his plans for the Montes tradition to continue and grow.
Take us back to the very beginning – what’s the history behind Monte’s Sauce?
It started when the Monte Family emigrated to Brooklyn from Sant’Angelo di Lombardi & Avellino, Italy in 1906 and began serving traditional Neopolitan fare to the community at what opened as Angelo’s Tavern and continued on to be known as the famed Monte’s Venetian Room. The storied high, red-leather banquettes were graced with the presence of a long line of royalty, politicians, gangsters and stars. Sammy Davis Jr, Frank Sinatra, James Cagney, Jimmy Durante, Al Pacino, Jackie Gleason, Sandy Koufax, and Hedy Lamarr, amongst countless others who frequented the Brooklyn staple, came far and wide for the homestyle cooking, dishes like the Shrimp and Clams Alla Monte, Angelo’s Meatballs and of course, our tomato sauce.
Today, we have reinvented ourselves in the fertile Hudson Valley of New York with the advent of Monte’s Local Kitchen & Tap Room in Amenia, NY. Our simple yet perfect recipe has remained consistent with the only changes being the improvement of the quality of our ingredients to be as locally grown and sustainable as possible.
How and when did your personal story in the family business begin?
I grew up working at Gurney’s as a teenager – on the beach as a cabana boy, in the kitchen, behind the bar, valet etc. I moved to the city, Mulberry Street in Little Italy to be exact, to go to college when I was 17-18. I started working in nightclubs in my early 20s throwing parties and DJing around downtown.
Ultimately, this was hospitality. There are many similarities working in nightclubs and working in the hotel/restaurant industry I grew up in. Simultaneously, I was always partaking in creative ventures. This led me to a few opportunities to develop brand identities and provide creative direction for bars, nightclubs & restaurants.
In late 2018, my family reached out to help with the restaurant upstate and in one of my first trips up I had a veal parmesan made by my Uncle Chip, the chef. I hadn’t had our sauce in a few years at that point and I was blown away. After spending the last 10 years traveling, working with and dining at some of the greatest restaurants, I realized this was something special. That’s when the lightbulb went off and I decided this sauce had to be packaged up. I relocated primarily upstate and began the journey.
What are you most thankful for in having the opportunity to work with family?
The best thing about working with family is that it doesn’t feel like work. It’s just sort of natural to us to be staying busy and providing true hospitality to our regulars and newcomers alike. It’s something that’s hard to find in restaurants, hotels, and bars today in increasingly competitive and expensive markets where it’s all about the bottom line.
For as long as I can remember, and going way back before my time, it has always been about extending our arms to our guests and employees and making everyone feel like they are part of our family.
Monte’s Sauce is a “100% Clean Label Product.” What does that mean?
By “clean label” we mean we use only natural ingredients: no tomato blends, pastes, starches, fillers, artificial additives, colors, dried herbs or added sugars and completely vegan & gluten free.
Our vine-ripened, fresh Plum tomatoes are the best American grown tomatoes available. We find them paramount to most Italian tomatoes available today as the popularity of San Marzano and similar Italian tomato varieties has led to mechanized commercial farming and mislabeling. Our tomatoes are grown in California via the rural Italian tradition and are washed and steam peeled. Additional ingredients are sourced locally from the best farms in the Hudson Valley, NY whenever seasonably available.
When enjoying a jar of Monte’s, what are some noticeable differences to other sauces?
The most noticeable difference between our sauce and other store-bought sauces is the freshness. Most brands use tomato paste (concentrate) which allows them to add massive amounts of water, whereas we only use whole, fresh, peeled plum tomatoes from the same farm we have been working with forever. Additionally, most brands cut corners and costs by using dried herbs, artificial additives, and preservatives, and we only use the freshest available ingredients which we source as local as possible.
The best way for someone to understand what you’re talking about is to try it for themselves! So, what are some of your favorite dishes to suggest making with your sauce and do you have any insider tips or tricks for perfecting them?
Our sauce is so fresh and versatile it can be used for much more than just with your favorite pasta. It can be used in a braise – short ribs, lamb shank, etc., or in a soup like a pasta e fagioli. In the summer, pour it over a pot of mussels or clams with some local cherry tomatoes and let it simmer til they pop open.
We even have customers who literally heat up and eat our sauce like tomato soup (dunk a crispy grilled cheese in there and thank me later).
A common mistake most people make when cooking pasta is they will strain their pasta and then dump the sauce right on top. Instead, they should heat up the sauce in a separate sauce pan while their pasta is boiling (in salted water, of course) and add the pasta directly into the sauce on low heat, stirring for a while until the sauce begins to stick to the noodle. Don’t be afraid to add a ladle of the starchy, salty pasta water to your sauce either! You can see some additional recipes on our website MontesSauce.com
What does the future look like for Monte’s Sauce?
The possibilities are endless. The goal is to expand our catalog of products – pastas, pestos, etc. – while maintaining the ethos of being a 100% clean label brand, providing top quality products and supporting local farms and industry.
We would like to be a household brand available in every grocery store and farmers market alike and support the shift in consumer consciousness away from overly processed foods towards health conscious, clean label products.