You Came to the Right Place – 15 Fox Place
Guests Dining in the Siena Room with Mary Lou Roche (at Right in Black) – Photo Steve Gold © Harmony Media, NJ
15 Fox Place offers classic Italian-American family meals in a classic Jersey City family home. A quiet, tucked-away residential block in Jersey City’s Marion neighborhood is home to the celebrated dining club 15 Fox Place.
The name is the address, and that’s especially fitting. For chef and co-owner Kathryn Budinich, the close-knit neighborhood has defined not only her profession—filled with food and family—but her entire life. “I was born and raised around the corner, three blocks away, on Wallace Avenue,” says the former Kathryn Laprete.
On the ground floor of their tenement building, Kathryn’s family ran a grocery store called Neil’s, where her grandfather was the butcher. Meanwhile, Kathryn attended Our Lady of Mount Carmel School as a member of its second graduating class. She met Richie Budinich in Mount Carmel’s CYO program; they fell in love and eventually married. “That’s our hub,” Kathryn says. “Everything that we’ve ever done started from Mount Carmel.”
After their wedding, the couple made a big move—two doors down. Then, in the early 1970s, Richie opened the Candy Emporium in the Hudson Mall on Route 440, serving as the shop’s chocolatier. Kathryn was a stay-at-home mom (son Marc also attended Mount Carmel, of course), taking in part-time legal secretary work and helping out Mount Carmel whenever possible. Kathryn says, “We were sort of the fundraisers for the parish.”
With a crew of about 50 friends, the Budiniches organized all types of affairs for Mount Carmel, including its annual feast. In 1986, a parish priest called Kathryn and asked if her team would cater a 25th-anniversary celebration for a local priest. There was one key difference to this event: the Budiniches would be paid.
Then, around the holidays, a call came in for another paying gig. And just like that, the Budiniches started the very appropriately named Word of Mouth Catering. “I have never advertised—never needed to,” Kathryn says. They ran the company from the second floor of 15 Fox Place, where the Budiniches moved a few years earlier. As the business grew, the operation shifted to the old tenement house on Wallace Avenue, utilizing any available oven. Their son Marc graduated from culinary school and was added to the team as a professional chef. Clients ranged from Comcast and Cablevision to Verizon and the Port Authority. The high point, though, came one day in 1994, with Marc entering a room at 15 Fox Place where Kathryn was napping.
“He said, ‘Ma, wake up—the White House called,’” Kathryn recalls. She soon grasped that it was not just any white house, but the White House. Word of Mouth would be catering President Bill Clinton’s visit to Liberty State Park. The thank-you note from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue reads, “Everyone was quite pleased with the service as well as the cuisine.”
When Marc got married and moved out of 15 Fox Place, the next chapter in the family business began to take shape. “I got really bored when he left,” Kathryn says.
“I always had parties here. This was the party house.” She continued to see Marc daily at the catering company, but Kathryn came to a realization: “I have to do something with this house.” The downstairs neighbors moved away years earlier, leaving the Budiniches the run of the entire building. In 1999, Kathryn sent a letter to Word of Mouth’s clients, inviting them over for dinner. Several accepted, and all of a sudden, 15 Fox Place was reborn as a dining club. (Word of Mouth Catering remains active, focusing on large events including weddings and the Golden Door International Film Festival at the Landmark Loew’s Jersey Theatre.)
Kathryn wondered what steps she’d need to take to bring the house up to code, but it turned out that 15 Fox Place was already in great shape. Because the catering business was headquartered there, the building had existing Board of Health approval, exit signs, and fire extinguishers. And, as luck would have it, the house was located in a commercial zone. The insurance company just needed to figure out how to classify the new business, settling on “supper club.”
The reconfigured downstairs fit 23 people for dinner. Initially, guests came by reference only—you had to “know somebody.” Demand was high, and the Budiniches soon realized they needed more space. So they did the only logical thing: moved out of their own house. (The Budiniches now live in Nutley, New Jersey.)
With their living quarters upstairs converted to dining rooms, 15 Fox Place can now serve 52 people at a time. The expansion came at an opportune moment, as the New York Times gave the dining club a glowing review in 2003. With increased interest and capacity, the “members only” requirements at 15 Fox Place loosened a bit. Still, however, guests can’t just show up, ring the doorbell, and expect a table. Reservations are taken well in advance, with dinners served on Friday and Saturday nights. (Kathryn will open on other days for special occasions. On Sundays, interested parties can schedule a 3-hour cooking class.)
As first-time visitors walk down Fox Place, house No. 15 looks like any other home on the block. Entering, that’s what one finds—a charming old Jersey City family home. Except in this family home, every room is a dining room. Touring the house is like exploring a secret world, turning a corner or climbing the stairs to discover another themed room, with a lifetime’s collection of knick-knacks lining the walls. The different dining areas—including the Siena Room, Library, and “A Glimpse of Tuscany”—hold varying numbers of patrons. In warmer weather, diners can also be seated in the lovely back patio, where Kathryn grows herbs. With space at a premium, the backyard additionally holds—out of customer view—a jumbo-sized refrigerator.
Kathryn and Marc each head up a kitchen, one upstairs and one downstairs. Helpers, dishwashers, and wait staff all lend a hand. (The crew are generally family and friends; waitress Mary Lou Roche has been with Kathryn since the Mount Carmel PTA days.) “And my husband does everything,” Kathryn adds.
Then it’s time to eat. Guests are instructed to arrive no later than 7:30 for the one nightly seating. You won’t hear anyone say “We just need another minute” to review the menu, because there is no menu. Diners eat what Kathryn serves: six courses covering about fourteen different items ($90 per person plus tax and gratuity, BYOB). Over the years, the selections have not varied too much—guests are guaranteed to see stuffed peppers, creamy polenta with a sausage sauce, and fried pizzas. Nonny’s ravioli is a favorite, as is Kathryn’s Pollo Divino. She might switch up an entrée or pasta, tweak a sauce, or add a seasonal touch. And with advance notice, Kathryn will gladly adhere to guests’ dietary restrictions. Just leave room for dessert—almost three hours into the meal—including zeppole, chocolate cakes, and Richie’s homemade ice cream.
The draw of a delicious meal in a warm, friendly setting has brought a devoted clientele from all over New Jersey as well as across the country and around the world. Notable guests have included Senator Cory Booker, Jim Cramer from TV’s Mad Money, Grammy winner Roberta Flack, and Jersey City’s own HGTV stars Anthony Carrino and John Colaneri, a.k.a. the Kitchen Cousins.
Around midnight, the last lingering guests head to the exit—smiling, stuffed, and completely satisfied. And no one is more pleased than Kathryn Budinich. “Just making people happy, that makes me happy,” she says. “When they come in, and they want to kiss me, and they call me mama, or grandma, or whatever. I’ve had men kiss my hand, ask me to leave my husband and get married, because they want to eat my food. That’s the nice stuff.”
Visit 15 Fox Place in Jersey City’s Marion neighborhood (see map below). Reservations are taken well in advance, with dinners served on Friday and Saturday nights. For more info visit, womcatering.com.
This article originally appeared in the the 2014 Winter issue of JCI Magazine. © Harmony Media, NJ. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without written permission.
Photos Steve Gold © Harmony Media,NJ