It's not just the best restaurant in North Caldwell, it's the only one.
Tucked away in a little storefront is Sofia's Ristorante at the northern edge of the borough at 771 Main St.
It's a little eatery with a big history in the area.
Joe and Susie Cicchino are Sofia's husband-and-wife owners and operators. While Joe cooks, Susie handles the front end of the operation.
The Nutley and Belleville natives (with close ties to Italy) opened Sofia's in 1998 when they took over the space from a Mexican restaurant. Named after their now 20-year-old daughter, Sofia's remained until 2008.
After a decade, the Cicchinos decided to change gears by moving their business to a nearby spot on Route 23 in Little Falls, altering their format to more take-out than dine-in and added pizza to the mix.
In the interim, the North Caldwell location became Gianna's under new owership. When the space became available again, the Cicchinos decided to come back earlier this year and held their grand re-opening in June.
I dined there with my family on a recent Tuesday night. Since Sofia's is BYO, I stopped at ShopRite Liquors in Caldwell and grabbed a bottle of our current fave, Mirassou. Their Califonia Cabernet Sauvignon is a solid choice, pairing nicely with pasta and meat dishes at just $9.99 for the 1.5-liter bottle.
A simple interior design works well with the space. After passing through a small vestibule, French doors open to a cozy dining area with tables mostly to the left and to the right.
The middle leads to the kitchen area, with dishes actually getting served through an opening in a wall. Tables, chairs and wall decor are all subtle and work well in setting the center stage for the cuisine and family feel to the business.
On the night I dined, the restaurant was packed with general customers filling the left-side tables and a private party to the right. I helped fill the place by bringing along my wife, Toni, and two children, Nick ("The Kid" from our pizza-tasting contest series) and Sofia (that's really her name).
For appetizers, Sofia's menu contains notable authentic Italian selections such as the "Carciofini Oreganati" (breaded artichoke hearts, $9) and the "Portobello Ripieno" (mushrooms stuffed with crab meat, roasted peppers and capers in a gorgonzola sauce, $11).
Entrees are split among the chicken, veal, seafood and pasta varieties, which seem to be very popular.
"Linguini Al Parmiggiano Reggiano" is called the "specialty of the house," and after seeing it prepared and having eaten it, it's a must.
We wanted it for an appetizer, so we split a "for one" order ($17; "for two" is $32), which was still served family style, placed on the table after it was prepared right next to us in a large bowl.
Susie appeared from around a corner with a cart. On it was a Reggiano cheese wheel where our pasta was prepared. Pouring the pasta on the cheese, she added a little whiskey to it and set it—and eventually our taste buds—ablaze. It was an excellent dish—coupled with the red wine, it was perfect.
My wife ordered a side order of broccoli rabe ($9), which was almost forgotten. She had some and liked it, but in her calamari trance, I ultimately had to take care of it (chivalry is not dead, it just needs garlic to come to life).
Sofia's was a less oily, more authentic version of the classic broccoli rabe, included the stalk and was bursting with garlic flavor. It was definitely a nice little addition that tasted like home cooking.
My son loves fried calamari. He ordered Sofia's version, "Calamari Dorati" ($11), with my wife requesting both sweet and hot sauce (he likes hot, she the sweet). When it arrived, it went as fast as it came.
"I really like it because it's thin and not rubbery at all," the wife said between bites. As for Nick, he basically ate the whole thing by himself and rated it higher than other local eateries. Due to a recent rash of recitals and communions, we've been on a tour of many local restaurants and the kid is in good calamari judgement mode right now.
My Entree: Pollo Sofia
Considering where I was and who I was with (my daughter Sofia), it almost seemed like tempting fate to order anything but "Pollo Sofia" ($17).
My plate was a pinwheel: 11 slices of chicken breast (I counted) were in a circle, each stuffed with spinach, prosciutto, mozzarella and roasted peppers. Topping it off was a light brown brandy sauce. A cooked vegetable medley sat in the center, arranged liked an exotic flower from the island of Capri.
Of course, visual appeal is one thing and taste is another. Fortunately, the "Pollo Sofia" succeeded on both fronts. It's fun arrangement on the plate was equaled with a lighter, almost-fruity (the peppers) and yet smoky flavor (the sauce).
It was very filling—perhaps the pinwheel could be pared down to eight pieces of chicken?
The Wife's Choice: "Pollo Susanna"
Across the table, my wife was getting ready to dig in. Her dish ($18) consisted of two chicken cutlets, pan-fried to a perfect crisp, yielding a nice crunchy bite (yes, I sampled them) served over a mozzarella, tomato and arugula salad with a balsamic vinaigrette.
Arugula is a sensitive plant, spoiling quickly, and much to my chagrin, my wife is an authority of sorts on the stuff. Many times, upon returning from shopping, I am lambasted for not buying arugula that is—to use another plant as reference—in mint condition.
As she prepared to dig in, I was ready for her report.
"This arugula tastes like someone grew it in their background," she said, which as fellow Arugul-ans know, is a compliment of the highest order.
Overall, both "pollo" dishes were good, with mine being the more flavorful and the wife's a less-caloric, more summery affair.
The Finishing Touch
Italian dining truly isn't complete without dessert.
They aren't listed on the menu, but a nice lineup was professionally told to us by one of Susie and Joe's daughters, 11 year-old Gabriella.
I had the tartufo, which is an Italian restaurant classic—a ball of dark chocolate covered with chocolate and vanilla ice cream with a cherry in the middle that was as good as it sounds.
Nick, who loved his children's order of penne with butter and cheese for dinner, had the cheesecake for dessert. It was a nice-sized piece, fresh and drizzled with chocolate syrup.
Toni and I had cappuccinos ($3.75). Mine was decaf, which is always nice to see offered as an option.
As we sat and sipped, we watched the full house get tended to by the Cicchinos and some additional staff.
Besides the food, the customers enjoyed seeing the friendly-family atmosphere, which includes Susie's quick repartee.
"Are you short-handed tonight?" a customer asked, mock teasingly, during a major multi-tasking moment.
"Come and put an apron on! " Susie's replied as the table erupted in laughter.
Address: 711 Main St., North Caldwell
Phone: 973-890-3993 (reservations recommended)
Web site: www.sofiasristorante.net
Serving: Tuesday to Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 4 to 9 p.m.
Price range: $ -$$ (low to moderate)
Recommended: Linguini Al Parmiggiano Reggiano
The Bottom Line: This last outpost in North Caldwell is a first stop for many diners in the area for good reason: Sofia's is simply tasty Italian food, served in a laid-back, family atmosphere—and that's actually two good reasons.