Normally in pre-Covid days, when you wanted a good meal in NYC, you’d most likely have dozens of notable restaurants only feet apart from each other, or separated by a quick walk down your block.
These days, dining out has not only become somewhat of a hassle, but even a danger, here in the Big Apple. Worry over restaurants’ safety precautions due to the pandemic and mistrust of other diners has prevented people from coming out of their apartments. Other restaurants have shuttered to prevent the spread of sickness to their workers, and some have for good.
That being said, a star has been on the rise in nearby Englewood, New Jersey, that has been getting the attention it deserves from both the regular dining crowd and the highrollers, and has become a destination dining spot in a world where most destinations are unreachable.
Enter Sofia, a buzzy eatery just over the George Washington Bridge. This seen-and-be-seen spot opened in 2015, but has recently been garnering some more attention for its scene and quality during the pandemic.
Like I said earlier, a lot of restaurants have been on the downturn lately, and certainly not in any position to be making any big moves. Yet right when Sofia reopened, they grabbed Chef Patrizio La Gioia, who has most definitely been a key factor in this newfound success.
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La Gioia, a Parisian-born but Italian-raised chef extraordinaire, has certainly been around the block when it comes to kitchens. He’s cut his teeth everywhere from St. Regis Aspen’s Chef’s Club and Nobu Miami to Madison Square Garden and even quaint pizzerias. La Gioia first began garnering an interest in cooking after moving out of the house to live with his brother and a friend in Bologna, where his brother did most of the cooking for the house. Being an admitted picky eater, he found himself needing to learn how to cook out of necessity.
“When I lived at home, I’d always suggest to my mother to add or take away things in what she’d cook if I liked it better that way, she’d always accommodate me, but my brother is totally different. He could eat a rock, he doesn’t care about flavor,” La Gioia laughed. “I would have to start calling my mother back home and be like, ‘Hey mom, how do you make the sauce again?’ or ‘How do you do the eggplant parmigiana?’”
La Gioia moved to the U.S. when he was 27 to pursue his career and worked in multiple kitchens until eventually landing his current position here at Sofia only a few months ago with Covid-19 in full swing. He also comes here after his departure from Felida, TV personality Lidia Bastianich’s NYC restaurant which recently shuttered it’s doors for good.
When it comes to the menu, it’s not that of your average Italian steakhouse. Lots of refined dishes are available for lunch and dinner, including an amazing grilled octopus appetizer made with bianchi beans and limoncello vinaigrette, giving it a surprisingly sour kick, or beet salad with ricotta instead of the usual goat cheese.
Mains include your usual Chicken Parm and Milanese, but what you should really be after is the fettucine with black truffle and rock shrimp, oven-roasted whole branzino, king crab legs or even wood-fire oven pizza. And lets not forget the steak; choose between an 8 or 12 ounce fillet mignon, 28 ounce ribeye, or a massive porterhouse where sharing is recommended, but still just a suggestion.
Then there’s La Gioia’s signature dish, the pappardelle made with oxtail ragout, nicknamed “rasta pasta” due to it’s Jamaican influence (La Gioia is also married to a Jamaican woman, who no doubt turned him on to the dish). It’s a delicious blend of baby kale, ricotta and succulent oxtail meat left to cook overnight that creates a taste not often had in a restaurant like this.
The cocktail list doesn’t skimp either, made with care by the restaurant’s resident mixologist. Try the “Up in Smoke” with laphroaig 10 single malt scotch with guava, vanilla, lime juice and bitters, or the “No Crying in Baseball,” with bulleit bourbon with white peach, honey thyme syrup, spanish vermouth, lemon juice and apple bitters on the rocks. If you’re not here to chow down, sit at the huge bar right in the front of the restaurant and sip the night away.
Downstairs, you’ll find something truly unique, as Sofia is one of the last establishments in New Jersey to hold an indoor smoking license. With it’s own small bar and a few tables, it’s just like the restaurant upstairs, but with dark, sultry lighting that makes it somehow even more warm and inviting. Unfortunately due to Covid, use of the lounge has been relegated to VIPs only, that being those who pay that extra cash to store their own cigars on site.
The restaurant also hosts live music courtesy of DJs on weekends, completely changing the mood of the place from a semi-casual boite to a party hub.
Though the descriptions of the food and setting make Sofia sound like a place only fit for the elite or the rowdy, La Gioia insists that the restaurant is great for all comers.
“When I look out from the kitchen, I see all different types of people here at all times of the day,” he said. “Families, older couples, whatever it is. We’re not a ‘fine-dining’ restaurant, we’re much more than that, and people absolutely love it here.”