This melt-in-your-mouth Italian restaurant and deli is a hidden gem within The Meadowlands

East Rutherford may be known as home to The Meadowlands where NFL teams have squared off for the Super Bowl and some of music’s megastars have entertained. But tucked away in the borough off Route 17 South is a hidden gem where homemade Italian comfort food takes center stage: Annabella’s House of Mozzarella {900 Paterson Plank Road, East Rutherford; 201.804.0303;}.

Owner Billy Pompeo is the big cheese at this intimate fine dining establishment serving what patrons attest to the best homemade mozzarella and cheesecake in Bergen County.

Annabella’s Owner Billy Pompeo and his Premium Mozzarella

“We have people come from all over the state for our mozzarella,” says Pompeo.

And this amazing mozzarella is made right on the premises. The warm, moist and thickly-sliced cheesy goodness, though decadently addicting, is only a fraction of the action at this romantic eatery. The restaurant also shares the space with an Italian Gourmet Shop in the center that sells everything from organic Italian pasta, imported cheeses like port wine and brandy cheddar and ricotta sarde, to chicken salad, olives and eggplant rollatini.

“Annabella’s started in 2004 at a little deli on Hackensack Street,” explained Pompeo. “It was there for 13 years as a mom-and-pop shop.”

This modest deli expanded into a full-on restaurant when it opened just two years ago, a venture Pompeo said was part of his destiny.

“My grandparents told me when I was young, ‘You’re going to have a restaurant someday,’” recalled Pompeo.

At just 7 years old, Pompeo served as their little helper in the kitchen, assisting with the making of stuffed meatballs. Since the opening, Annabella’s has served as a go-to place where people congregate to satisfy their hankering for their famous mozzarella, which serves as a starring role in a number of their hot and cold sandwiches.

For the real Italian experience, guests are encouraged to try their stuffed hot peppers with salami and provolone in their gourmet shop. Cooking a light dinner at home? Pick up a container of Annabella’s homemade vodka, Bolognese and marinara sauces ready to be heated and poured over a dish of al dente-cooked pasta noodles (they’ve got bags of those too!) For shoppers with a sweet tooth, the mini market also sells a mouthwatering assortment of Italian cookies from Neapolitans to sfogliatelles, a lightly filled shell-like Italian pastry native to Campania.

If you’re eating in the restaurant, the menu at Annabella’s is loaded with Italian favorites that anyone with a voracious appetite will savor down to the last bite. (Portion sizes are generous!) Dishes range from Chicken Vodka Parmigiana, Shrimp Scampi and Seafood Manicotti: Grandma Lizzy’s Manicotti Crepes stuffed with shrimp, scallops, lobster meat and ricotta topped with homemade vodka sauce. Other patron favorites include their homemade meatballs, the recipe for which is passed down from Pompeo’s Italian-American grandparents native to southern Italy. On weekend evenings, patrons can enjoy their dinners with friends and family while Pompeo croons Frank Sintra hits while the sounds of a live jazz band waft from atop the gourmet shop’s roof and Annabella’s congenial host Don DePascale chimes in on his trumpet.

For lunch, there is a lengthy list of wraps, salads and sandwiches sure to tantalize the taste buds. Uncle Sal’s Inferno (named for Pompeo’s uncle) is a piquant one: hot Cappicolla, hot stuffed peppers, provolone on Italian bread with a ladle of Annabella’s, red pepper-based special sauce on Charred Italian bread. Feeling like a boss? Eat like one with the Gangster Wrap: grilled marinated steak, portobello mushroom, fresh mozzarella topped with Annabella’s sauce. Weight watchers, delight: The Pop-Pop and Nanny is made with marinated grilled chicken, sliced avocado and arugula topped with a drizzle of Annabella Vinaigrette.

As an Italian would insist, save room for dessert! Apart from their intoxicating cheesecake, other tempting desserts on the roster include cannolis filled to order in addition to biscottis, homemade rice pudding and tiramisu.

Sound like a party you want to bring to your own home? Annabella’s offers robust catering options from meat and sausage selections to pasta, poultry, seafood and various salads, in addition to seasonal specials.

By Lianna Albrizio