It's Italian Fusion
Modern Meets Traditional at Sonny's on The Avenue in Verona
"One for dinner? Where would you like to sit? At a table? The counter?"
I know that voice. I turn and quickly realize I'm talking to the owner, Tom Malanga. He's well-known around town for his personable nature and dedication to the Chamber of Commerce (he's currently it's president). He's also known for his "cracks" - he's a chiropractor with an office also in town. Tonight, he's also Sonny's chief operator. Who's "Sonny?"
"That was my father's nickname - his real name was Salvatore. He hung out on Bloomfield Avenue in Newark, so that's where I got the name from."
Looking around, it's clear that Tom picked up more than a name from his dad; the decor is the story keeping family at the heart of things.
Taken with the modern, rich color tones on the walls that carryover everywhere else (the table cloths, and the heated terrace) Sonny's has a vibe that can appeal to full-family diners and hipsters alike. I say it's "terra-cotta cool," but Tom calls it "'Orange'; I wanted it that color so people see the place!"
I decide to site at the counter, which I soon realize is also a front-row seat into all things Sonny's-ville. Tom's a Whirling Dervish, seating and serving people, and yet still taking the time to talk to everyone. He hands me a menu, and flies off to feed a table of six.
It's a good one; every section from appetizer through the meat and fish sections is simple, but with 4-5 choices each. The recent trend of too-many choices on menus is being bucked here, and it works well in suggesting a more personal, hands-on nature to an establishment.
Speaking of which, Tom returns to take my order. "For an appetizer, you have to try the specialty. You like eggplant, right?"
I really do not, but I'm a fan of enthusiasm; with the right pitch, I'd try fried elephant. I decide to roll with Tom's suggestion of eggplant balls ($10). For an entree, some regular menu items are catching my eye - such as the chicken savoy ($17) but it's on the hand-written (a nice touch) specials sheet where I find my choice: veal and peppers ($19). After ordering, I enjoy some warm bread and a vegetable medley (peppers, artichokes, and more). I also drink some San Pellegrino sparkling water and watch the Phillies make mincemeat of the Reds on a TV that's hung behind the counter.
What's Better? The Appetizer or The Entree?
Fortunately, my appetizer arrived before I ate all of the bread (where does Tom get it from?). The eggplant was formed into three balls - "It's sauteed, and we use some mozzarella to keep it together." They're fried, and come with a pink sauce and basil. I cut one, and dug in.
The outsides of the eggplant balls yield a nice crunch, and hold heat inside. And inside is where the flavor fest begins. Even without the sauce (which was great), this is some dish.
"These are my retirement plan," Tom said when he brought them over, and judging by their taste, it's a sound investment.
After contributing to Tom's 401(k), it was time for the veal and peppers. The veal part was 4 large tender chunks that absorbed the light tomato sauce rather well. The red and green peppers were large rings, and it was was sauteed in brandy, making for a smoky taste. It was all served on a big portion of short, al dente rigatoni pasta.
This dish was excellent - it's always a pleasure when a tried-and-true entree is put together with such attention to detail, with high quality. Each part, from the peppers, to the veal, and the pasta, was well prepared - and together? Perfect - and filling.
After settling up with Tom, we talk for a bit like old pals, but soon he's too busy for chatter, the tables have filled up.
I make to note to return, maybe to dine on that heated terrance, but definitely to have some more of those eggplant balls.
Sonny's on The Avenue
624 Bloomfield Avenue, Verona
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 5-10 p.m; Sunday, 4-9 p.m.
Offering dine in, off-and-off site catering; BYO
Web site: www.sonnysontheavenue.com
The bottom line: From its decor to its menu, Sonny's on The Avenue is a truly unique entry to the Italian dining scene.