Mankind has been cooking over an open fire for at least 150,000 years. It has something to do with both art and science.
The heat creates a crust on the outside and the smoke gives food an incredible flavor. Man had to figure out the optimum time to allow something to cook.
For Alfonso Cuoco, the owner/operator of the Q Fire Grille, it was a trip back to Italy that rekindled his interest in cooking over a wood fire.
While visiting family in Naples, Cuoco noticed that many families and restaurants were converting their gas cooking systems back to wood.
"The flavors were tremendous. The wood brings the flavors of seafood and meat back to life," Cuoco says. "Amazing."
The concept has taken off in California, some southern states and in North Jersey. Cuoco thinks South Jersey is long overdue to join the club.
Cuoco, a first-generation American who spent summers in Wildwood since 1976, later lived there for five years. He believes Wildwood is ready to support the wood-fired-grill concept.
Locals have shown a great interest while the recently opened restaurant was being renovated.
"People have just been waiting to see how the food was going to be and the flavor," Cuoco says.
Phil Petitt is the chef at Q Fire Grille. A graduate of the Restaurant School in Philadelphia, he is also an alumnus of Peaches in Cape May and opened several restaurants for Lamberti's.
His first menu for the Q Fire Grille leaned more toward fine dining. After Cuoco took Petitt to North Jersey to visit some Portuguese restaurants, the idea of cooking almost the entire menu over a wood-fired grill was crystallized.
Brazilian, Italian and Portuguese cuisines have all influenced the menu.
One of the best-selling appetizers on the menu is roasted eggplant ($11). Slow-roasted eggplant is grilled over the wood fire and topped with thin slices of prosciutto di Parma and fresh water mozzarella. On top is a homemade pesto sauce and, underneath, a fresh marinara sauce; the dish is baked until the cheese starts to brown.
Clams and mussels ($13) are simply sauteed in olive oil and garlic until they give up their juices, then finished with slices of sweet-spicy chorizo sausage, Italian parsley and cilantro. The dish is their take on the Portuguese dishes they discovered on their research and development trips to the north.
Q wings ($10) puts a whole new spin on the always popular chicken wing. Slow-roasted, deep-fried, then tossed on the wood-fired grill, they are served with the house-made chipotle-mango BBQ sauce or a hot sauce made with plenty of garlic, cracked black pepper and butter, with a blue cheese and celery side.
"They are fall-off-the-bone tender," Petitt says.
Popular salads include a classic Caesar salad ($10) and a red pear salad ($11) with crumbled blue cheese, candied pecans and a raspberry vinaigrette.
All of the dressings are homemade and so are the soups, which include French onion and chicken orzo.
Beef tastes different when cooked over a wood-fired grill. The Q burger ($11) weighs in at one-half pound of ground sirloin cooked to order over a mix of cherry and oak wood. Crisp applewood-smoked bacon, baby portabella mushrooms and blue cheese crumbles embellish the perfect burger.
Signature entrees include a full rack of "Q rubbed" baby back ribs ($22), and a hand-cut, prime, 16-ounce porterhouse steak ($29), and a 12-ounce ribeye steak ($24), grilled with caramelized onion, baby bella mushrooms and a port wine reduction.
At Q Fire Grille, pork, chicken breast and Portuguese sausage all take on the smokey flavor of the wood.
Paella ($24) is a taste of South America with whole shellfish, clams, mussels, shrimp, scallops, calamari and chorizo sausage with short-grain rice and a saffron-seafood broth.
Cuoco grew up in the business - his parents owned a restaurant in Elizabeth - so he learned his lessons early.
"Customer service and quality of the food is priority number one," Cuoco says.
Happy hour signature drink specials include the ultimat bleu martini, watermelon fire margarita, wild lemon breeze and banana split. All are served half-price from 4 to 6 p.m. Domestic beers are $2 per bottle.
Crab tempura, triple-fired chicken wings, porterhouse steak, BBQ baby back ribs, roasted eggplant and a signature Paella are some of the many appetizers and entrees cooked over the wood-fired grill.
Instead of the classic chimichurri sauce made only with olive oil, garlic and plenty of fresh herbs, the Q Fire Grille version includes a grilled pineapple puree to add sweetness and smoke to the flavor.
Q Fire Grille
WHERE: 517 West Rio Grande Ave., Wildwood
WHEN: Open daily 11 a.m. to midnight
SERVICES: Major credit cards accepted. Liquor license. Disabled access. Eat in. Take out. Private parties. Catering. Kids menu. Smoking permitted on outside deck.
MORE INFO: Call 609-522-3055, go to www.letseat.at/qfiregrille or Facebook
BETWEEN YOU AND ME: Q Fire Grille is the only restaurant on the island that serves a seafood paella cooked over a wood fire. Made with local seafood, Portuguese chorizo and Spanish rice, it is one of the most popular items on the menu.