River View Observer: “Your Source for Fine and Casual Dining in Hudson County
By Sally Deering
During the summer months, River View Observer likes to slip into the kitchen of some of Hudson’s best restaurants and shine a spotlight on the chefs who create the delicious dishes on their menus. This week, RO visited Casa Dante restaurant a few blocks north of Journal Square on Newark Avenue. Casa Dante opened 40 years ago and changed hands about 8 years ago just around the time Chef Gregg Freda came on board as Executive Chef.
Newark Ave. could use a little fixing-up, that’s for sure, and it appears the street outside Casa Dante will be going through some demo to put in new street lights, but that shouldn’t deter a visit to Casa Dante. Once you step inside the restaurant’s foyer, you are immediately transported to an extremely tranquil setting where a visitor can easily relax and enjoy the traditional Italian cuisine. Another good reason: Casa Dante has its own parking lot, a rarity in Jersey City.
Casa Dante’s menu includes Antipasto dishes like Mozzarella in Carrozza, mozzarella, parmigiano encrusted bread, lightly fried; served with a size of the house marinara sauce; Clams Oregnata, Little Neck clams baked with oregano-seasoned bread crumbs; and Fried Calamari, tender fresh calamari lightly fried and served with lemon and a choice of sweet or hot marinara. Salads feature the Insalada di Avocado, avocado, hearts of palm, fresh mozzarella and diced tomatoes with lemon and olive oil dressing; and Crabmeat Salad, tangy arugula, colossal crabmeat and asparagus in garlic and lemon dressing. And the House Specialty, Seafood Salad ala Dante, chilled shrimp, scungilli, calamari, diced tomato, lemon, garlic and olive oil. There are Pasta, Chicken, Veal, Seafood and Steak entrees, all traditional Italian cuisine. Chef Freda also creates daily specials, some with a flavorful twist.
Let’s meet Chef Freda!
RVO: Chef Freda, what is your background and how did you get interested in cooking?
CF: I was born in Newark and raised in Verona. I’m the middle-child. My mother’s side of the family has always been into food. My grandfather Frank Panico was a butcher and had his own shop in Newark. My first job was in King Supermarket where I worked as a cashier while I was still in high school. I was always around food. Then my uncle Frank opened Panico’s restaurant and I started out as a cook, worked my way to sous chef and chef. That was in the 90s.
RVO: What is your educational background?
CF: I had attended St. John’s University and studied pre-law, but the book work, the reading, that stuff I didn’t find interesting. I liked cooking better. Working with food, I enjoyed it more. It’s fun. It’s still fun 30 years later.
RVO: Did you go to culinary school?
CF: No, I’m self-taught. I worked my way up the old way before culinary schools were popular.
RVO: What are your responsibilities as Executive Chef?
CF: My responsibilities are pretty much everything. I oversee the kitchen.
RVO: Does Casa Dante have any signature dishes?
CF: There are certain things synonymous with Casa Dante like the Casa Dante Seafood Salad, and the Sole Francaise. We have tripe, which you don’t see very often. That’s an “Old World” dish. I’m not crazy about Tripe, but it does give a lot of flavor to the tomato sauce it’s served in.
RVO: In traditional Italian cuisine, isn’t tomato sauce called ‘gravy’?
CF: Tomato gravy has to have meatballs, sausage, braciola, pork spare-ribs – to me, that’s gravy. At Casa Dante, we sell Sicilian meatballs with pignoli nuts and raisins in them. If you’re from Sicily, it’s a classic Sicilian meatball.
RVO: How would you describe traditional Italian cuisine?
CF: Italian food is supposed to be five ingredients. They can be whatever you want, but the dish has to be simple. The product is supposed to stand on its own. If it’s a veal chop, let it be the best veal chop. If its fish, let it be fresh. It’s all healthy food.
RVO: You also create daily specials with a twist? Can you give an example?
CF: They’re Italian dishes but not “old Italian”. Today we have a Braised Beef Short Rib over Creamy Polenta; Swordfish Rollatini; and Wild Salmon with a Mixed Peppercorn Crust.
RVO: Many of our readers don’t have a lot of time to cook when they get home from work, can you suggest a quick recipe?
CF: Here’s a great summer pasta dish: Take some Jersey tomatoes, peel and seed. Chop the tomato and put it in a bowl with fresh basil, salt & pepper, and garlic. Take hot pasta, toss your hot pasta on top and drizzle some Extra Virgin olive oil on top of that. Serve it with some bread; it’s a classic, simple dish.
RVO: Who would you say is your favorite chef?
CF: The best food I ever had in my life was my grandmother’s. I remember the holidays and her macaroni and meatballs and sausage. It’s a pity I never got to learn from her. One time, my brother asked her to cook him a can of Chef Boyardee. So my grandmother cooked him Chef Boyardee and then she threw the pot in the garbage. She wasn’t going to say no to her grandson, but she was not going to use that pot again. That’s a traditional Italian grandmother.
If you go:
737 Newark Ave