The must-try Italian restaurant in New Jersey in 2022
From New York to just over the George Washington Bridge in Englewood, New Jersey: Sofia, a farm-to-table Italian steakhouse with a sexy cigar bar and lounge, is northern New Jersey’s hippest restaurant. So much so that I would leave – and in fact I leave – New York, where animated spots abound, to spend my Saturday evening there.
Let’s start with the setting: Sofia is chic to say the least and has several spaces to please you. They are each unique but all attractive. The main dining room features airy ceilings, mirrored walls and beautiful flooring. And I can’t forget the impressive bar (more on that later) filled with so much spirits it reaches all the way to the ceiling. To the rear, a garden room has a retractable roof, hanging plants and black and white patterned flooring – it’s the epitome of indoor/outdoor dining.
On the ground floor, there is a beautiful cigar and speakeasy style lounge with a high-end ventilation and air filtration system. The places in New Jersey where you can smoke indoors are few and in between, but this one happens to be one of them and therefore has a dedicated following. Come here for rare cigars, hard-to-find whiskeys and bourbons, and craving-worthy steaks.
Sofia’s lower level also has an 80-seat heated pergola that owner Eddy Sujak built during the pandemic and looks like some sort of hideaway with its underground setting.
Now back to the bar because, really, who doesn’t like to drink, even if it’s with a mocktail? Sofia, hands down, has the best bar in the state – maybe even the tri-state – with a staggering array of 900 spirits ranging from the impossible to the source of tequilas (Clase Azul’s Day of the Dead anyone? ) and whiskeys (Yamazaki 18, yes I can) to artisanal vodkas and an incredible selection of wines, from the most affordable to the most extravagant. The cocktail list is incredibly creative: is it the Seductress you’ll have with lemon vodka, peach, lemon juice and shaken Lillet blanc? Or are you more of a No Money, No Honey person because you like the combination of tequila, spiced honey, lime, pineapple, and mole bitters?
Places as glamorous and scenic as Sofia with beautiful patrons to boot usually don’t bother to pay much attention to the food – it’s an afterthought instead of the main event. But eating in Sofia is a highlight. The ingredients for the Italian dishes are top of the line and of comparable quality to what you would find in a two or three Michelin star restaurant in New York.
Current chef Emanuele Cipolla is originally from Sicily and sources caviar from a farm in upstate New York, red shrimp from southern Sicily, first-pressed olive oil from Puglia, and fruits from sea of the whole Mediterranean.
His card travels the Italian map. It’s the perfect combination of indulgent cleanliness and Mediterranean-style cleanliness – my meat-loving kids are spoiled for choice while the healthy-eating seafood fan has more choices than I know what do it. Entrees include an addictive fritto misto with zucchini, calamari, and artichokes, octopus with cherry tomatoes, olives, and peppers, and an array of salads – the centocolori with frisee, radicchio, avocado, mozzarella, and more. my first choice.
Starters have lots of seafood like salmon in a mustard sauce with squash noodles and oven roasted branzino with fresh vegetables. But watch out for the specials because Sofia offers them almost every day (wild Dover sole, for example, or simply seared sea scallops).
Then there are the familiar dishes we all know and love: a solid chicken parmigiana or milanese, vongole linguini, and the excellent USDA dry-aged steaks, from 8-ounce filet mignon to porterhouse for two. Sides such as sautéed spinach, shishito peppers, macaroni and cheese, garlic mashed potatoes and more round out the dining experience
Save room for the desserts – they’re all homemade with the best chocolate, nuts and other ingredients Cipolla can find. With choices like hot chocolate cake with vanilla gelato, pistachio and chocolate chip cannoli, and caramelized sugar crème caramel, they’re all worth it. Just like a visit to Sofia is worth it. And if you go there once, you will come back again and again. Soon, like me, be a regular.
Q&A with Sofia Executive Chef Emanuele Cipolla
The chef from Taormina, Sicily, shares his insider tips on his island and gives us a look at his menu.
How does your Sicilian origin influence your cuisine?
Due to the influence of so many foreign cultures and peoples, Sicily has an incredibly impressive culinary repertoire of food and wine. This diverse foundation has been a pillar of strength in my career as an executive chef.
What typical Sicilian ingredients are found in the dishes of Sofia?
I often use Mazara red prawns, cooked and dried ricotta, pistachio di Bronte, saffron, wild fennel, sardines and sea urchins. Some of my recurring specialties are Sicilian swordfish rolls, Sardinian pasta, panelle (fried chickpea polenta), couscous, and bluefin tuna crudo.
Can you tell us some of the dishes you have added to the menu since your arrival in Sofia?
First, the cannoli. I couldn’t even think they were missing from our menu! That said, getting the right ricotta to make them was very difficult. Fortunately, I found an importer who made my dream come true and delivers fresh ricotta to Sofia every week.
Another dish I’m very proud of is ravioli alla Norma, where Norma’s traditional ingredients (fried eggplant, tomato sauce, basil and dried or baked ricotta) are invaluable in the handmade ravioli.
Why visit Sicily? What does he offer as a destination?
Sicily is a spectacular island rich in historical monuments, enchanting beaches, architectural treasures, breathtaking nature trails, important archaeological sites, exquisite cuisine and amazing art. While the island is very welcoming to everyone, we have maintained the integrity of our culture.
If you could bring back one souvenir from Sicily, which one would it be?
There are so many things I want to take with me, but I will always bring traditional ceramics with me, especially the Testa di Moro from Caltagirone.