Monday, October 12, 2009

A Dining Blast from the Past

By Pat Tanner

I recently found myself back in my hometown of Newark, in the Ironbound section to be precise, participating in one of several experimental farmers’ markets mounted by Brick City Corporation. After preparing and giving out samples of a salad that incorporated apples, peppers, and cucumbers from farmer Raj Sinha of Liberty Farm in Sussex County, my husband and I were in need of an early dinner. We “settled” on nearby stalwart Fornos of Spain, which for more than two decades has been serving up more or less traditional Spanish fare, albeit with concessions to Americans’ penchant for Italian.

Nothing about Fornos is modern or trendy. The white-tablecloth décor of this large, sprawling restaurant conjures bad banquet rooms with its heavy emphasis on dark wood and chandeliers. Some of the staff have been there from the start. Portions are huge – I mean really huge. Large wine glasses come filled to the brim. These factors usually spell disaster.

Not here. The décor may not be sophisticated, but the chairs are comfortable and the linens plush. The staff evinces Old World graciousness, and they’re efficient. A glass of house Rioja is not only enjoyable, it’s a great buy. Oversized portions make the seemingly hefty prices a bargain.

None of this would matter if the food weren’t good – and it’s very good. Even those dishes I generally turn up my nose at, such as breaded veal cutlets slathered in cream sauce and topped with a blanket of melted mozzarella. That’s because the ingredients are superior and the execution precise. All details are attended to, from a warm, crusty loaf of Portuguese country bread to espresso as good as any in Europe.

Generosity rules. Entrees come with simple but fresh green salads. Crunchy garlic bread is provided in addition to the country loaf. Big bowls of fluffy yellow rice, thick homemade potato chips, and bright green broccoli – perfectly al dente – crowded our already groaning table, which included my Chicken Navarre. For that, succulent cutlets were rolled up with slices of Serrano ham and asparagus and napped with white wine-cream sauce. Not my customary vittles, but thoroughly enjoyable.

What was the tab for this Old World, old school experience that, counting leftovers, kept us fed for two days? $73.51. Tax included.

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