I visited Rossi's Bar & Grill on a late summer evening in the middle of the week. The sun had descended fully, twilight had come and gone, and the humidity and stickiness of the day had dissipated leaving a cool, refreshing breeze to waft through the air. The building glowed eerily in the night, illuminated by a neon sign and neon piping that lines the windows, standing out amongst the nondescript rows of semi-detached two and three family dwellings that surround the bar. The sign that hangs on the corner of the building reads "Rossi's" across the top. and in larger, vertically orientated letters, "tavern" from top to bottom, but only the letters spelling "vern" were illuminated. It stood in stark contrast to the dark blue sky and it cast the building in a devilish deep red hue. It had the same effect on the inside of the bar which seemed to be devoid of any other lighting.
Opening the door revealed a square bar in a square room surrounded by mostly empty stools. As the door swung shut behind me, two seated patrons and the bartender looked up with seeming astonishment. I was not sure if they were surprised to see strangers or if they were surprised to see anybody at all. Turns out it may have been a little of both.
Despite the illuminated external evidence, I was beginning to question whether I was in the right place. Could this be the location of one of the most vaunted hamburgers in New Jersey, here in this virtually barren bar room with a the lighting of a sensory deprivation experiment? Rossi's has been around in one form or another since the 1930s, starting as a soda fountain and becoming a bar after prohibition was repealed, but maybe Rossi's had closed and was now called Vern's. Then I noticed a Rossi's Bar & Grill T-shirt hanging on the wall with the tagline, "You'll never know who you'll see." I suppose "who" could include "nobody."
"Are you serving dinner?" I asked. "In the back," replied the barkeep. My fears about eating a hamburger completely bathed in red light, as if under a heat lamp, were assuaged when I proceeded through the bar room and into the dining area. Blessedly, it was lit in white light and the room had a pleasingly warm, incandescent glow. It looked heavenly, particularly in comparison to the demonic shading of the bar room.
As I took my seat in the dining room and ordered a rare cheeseburger, the two bar patrons finished off their drinks and marched out of the bar—perhaps they didn't like it when Rossi's gets too crowded.
"Why are you taking a picture of the burger?" questioned my waitress when the hamburger was deposited on my table and I whipped out my Nikon.
"This is a very famous hamburger" I replied. "It's featured in a book called Hamburger America."
"Oh sure, I know that book; that picture is not right" she said matter of factly, referring to the picture of the Rossi Burger in George Motz's book. With the actual Rossi burger in front of me, I could not really argue. The picture in the book is fine, but it doesn't convey the sheer enormity of the burger, which is simply massive. Because the Kaiser roll is so large, yet in such perfect proportion to the extra large patty, a picture of the burger could be almost any weight. It is only when you see something to compare it to that you realize just how big it is.
I ordered mine with cheese and the two squares of white Americancould not even span the burger. According to Motz, the patties are measured by hand, and while they supposedly weigh in at around a half-pound, the one I had seemed much bigger. Al Rossi, who developed the burger, played in the NBA so maybe it was his hand that was used when the burger was first "hand measured."
The beef is seared in a steak broiler, which puts some nice grill marks and a decent crust on the patty. Reportedly a 87/13 fresh chuck blend, the beef is light and fluffy, and, despite being lean, is still somewhat juicy. The Kaiser roll, which I am not generally a fan of, actually works very well in this application. I am not sure a regular bun would be able to hold the behemoth patty, even if you could find one big enough, but the kaiser is robust enough to handle it. And the bun was fresh—soft and airy, conforming snugly around the equally soft and airy patty. There is always the danger that a big burger will devolve into meatloaf or fall apart completely, but the Rossi burger stood firm.
There is one serious flaw with the burger: It is completely unseasoned. No salt, no pepper. It is an unfathomable omission—some aggressive seasoning before broiling would dramatically improve the burger. But it was far from bad: The beef had an honest, fresh flavor, and despite the apparent leanness of the blend, it was moist and tender.
As I was leaving my waitress and the bartender were commiserating at the bar while she ate a large slab of chicken Parmesan. I wondered if all the food at Rossi's is oversized. "Slow night?" I asked. "They're all slow these days," was the terse reply. I changed the subject. "That looks good" I said referring to her food. "Do you want to try a bite?" she offered. I declined; there was absolutely no way I could eat anything after consuming the Rossi burger.
As I made my way out in to the cool night I felt sated, but also had a sense of nostalgia tinged with sadness. I expected Rossi's to be crowded, but it was mostly empty. While the bar has a lot of history and a more than decent hamburger, I got the feeling that its best days are in the past, so much so that they don't even bother putting on lights in the bar room.
Rossi's is now located at 2110 Whitehorse-Mercerville Road
Hamilton, New Jersey 08619