Saturday, April 24, 2010

A culinary surprise in the Ironbound

NJ - Newark - Ironbound DistrictImage by wallyg via Flickr

I have a few favorites among the Spanish, Portuguese and Brazilian restaurants in Newark's Ironbound section that I've tried since the early 1970s, when I lived in neighboring Elizabeth. But I didn't expect to find one of North Jersey's best Italian restaurants there.

The nice, white-haired gentleman who had shown us to our seats late Friday afternoon said he opened Assaggini Di Roma about 13 years ago after a career in construction, but he lamented how it consumes all of his time. Having just finished a great meal, I praised the food and said he was tremendously successful as a first-time restaurateur.

Assaggini means "a little taste" as in A Little Taste of Rome.

Our meatless meal started with antipasto for two (hold the sausage) and two pasta dishes -- both  with wide, thick pappardelle noodles, made in-house. The antipasto platter ($13.75) held fresh mozzarella drizzled with a little pesto and a cubed hard cheese, sweet and hot peppers, sliced plumb tomato and perfectly dressed lettuce and greens -- all terrific with a basket of fresh, chewy bread.

One pasta dish was dressed with pesto and broccoli rabe, and the other with garlic, oil, small white beans and asparagus, plus a couple of tablespoons of red-pepper flakes and grated cheese we added at the table. The noodles filled our mouths and had us smacking our lips ($12.95 and $16.95). I drank a glass of thick, homemade red wine.

To finish, me, my wife and our son shared an entree of Chilean sea bass and a vegetable ($24.95). The fillet was about six or seven inches long and two inches thick, giving each of us a nice hunk of this gloriously fatty fish topped with breadcrumbs. The vegetable was fresh spinach -- cooked down into a soft, deep-green delight.

I only had room for an espresso.

When you walk in off the street, you enter a bar (as in many Ironbound restaurants), with the dining room behind it. A door at the rear leads to a sister restaurant, Mario's Pizzeria, on Delancey Street. The restaurant looks untouched since it opened, with mirrors framed in gold, tiles on the floor and part way up the walls, and one of those drop ceilings. There also is a small stage. Two bottles of wine and a bottle of sparking water are on each table.

Go for the food and bring an appetite.

Assaggini Di Roma, 134 Clifford St., Newark; 
973-466-3344; also 3253 Chelsea Place
(Route 35 north), Hazlet; 732-335-5900. 
Reservations recommended on weekends.
A Little Taste of Rome


  1. Victor: gotta question about the chilean seabass...whenever i see it at a grocery store or on a menu I recoil, because as you know, overfishing is moving the fish towards extinction...I'm assuming you follow sustainable fish guidelines and was bewildered by your choice of the fish. Can you explain?

  2. You are absolutely correct, Alexis. Chilean sea bass is over-fished, and I have eaten it only three times in the past five years. I chose it at Assaggini di Roma because the alternative was farmed tilapia. That doesn't justify my choice, of course. I always try to eat wild fish if I can.

  3. I don't know victor~ in both a sustainability head to head (chilean seabass vs. farmed tilapia) and a health dual ( Chiliean seabass may contain elevated levels of mercury) i kinda think you picked the loser...Without sounding snarky (though I suppose it is), I gotta ask, do you really know what you're eating?

  4. That's cute, Alexis.

    I eat low-mercury fish consistently, and mercury isn't as much of a health issue for men as it is for women and children.

    For example, I avoid tuna sushi altogether, unlike actor Jeremy Pliven and Jennifer A. Borg, vice president and general counsel of North Jersey Media Group. I also don't think an individual can do much about harvesting of scarce fish -- that battle should be fought at the level of the importer, fish mongers and restaurants.

  5. Here is some information from the Environmental Defense Fund about Chilean sea bass, also called Patagonian toothfish:

    Eco Details

    * Marketed as Chilean sea bass, toothfish are in severe decline from overfishing.
    * Popular with consumers, they fetch premium prices, which have spurred rampant illegal fishing.
    * The longlines commonly used to catch Chilean sea bass often snag endangered albatrosses and other seabirds as they grab bait, and the birds end up drowning.
    * A small, legal and well-managed toothfish fishery in the South Georgia islands near Antarctica was recently certified as "sustainable" by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), a fisheries certification agency based in London.
    * Where available, MSC-certified Chilean sea bass is clearly preferable to uncertified fish.


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