For years now, I’ve been berated by friends and colleagues for my neglect of the acclaimed Italian steakhouse, Sofia in Englewood, NJ. Insistent on silencing my critics, I made a reservation at the chic, bustling spot nestled in the Bergen County downtown.
To get straight to the meat and potatoes (pun intended), Sofia is a display of culinary and hospitality excellence. Upon walking in, you are met with one of the most impressive bars you will find in the Garden State. A wall of liquor, adorned with both common and rare spirits, treats your sight upon arrival. Much like the many famous steakhouses of New York City, the servers don classic white coats with a black tie—albeit in a more casual atmosphere.
I came hungry and willing to enjoy a selection of steakhouse classics, as well as Italian cuisine unique to Sofia. I sat at the bar and ordered a Manhattan as I perused the menu, “rye or bourbon?” the bartender asked. A question I am always delighted to hear.
“Rye, obviously,” I replied.
In record time, a balanced and alluring cocktail was sitting in front of me. The Manhattan’s boozy components filled a Nick and Nora glass to the brim, and a skewered cocktail cherry pulled it all together. The Manhattan tasted as it should— a mark that is surprisingly missed by an array of restaurants nowadays.
Then came time for dinner. For starters, slab bacon and fritto misto—a southern Italian dish containing a mixture of fried seafood and vegetables. The bacon came out on a hot plate, sizzling as my server slid it in front of me. Made famous by iconic restaurants like Peter Lugers in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, slab bacon eats like a marriage between steak and bacon. It’s crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside, all rounded out by a deeply salty and savory flavor. A cup of Sofia’s classic steak sauce accompanies it. This was reminiscent of most of the steakhouse bacons I have had in my past and I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
In modern dining, there is a fine line between what should be innovated upon and what should be left alone to bask in its dignity and greatness. For a steakhouse, slab bacon is a must. To bring that point further, it doesn’t need to be anything it isn’t. You are allowed to reuse a classic template and Sofia recognizes this. This was a welcome first bite of food. The familiarity was an even better way to start a meal than the cocktail.
Now, for a non-steakhouse appetizer. One of the many dishes that live on Sofia’s expansive menu that puts the “Italian” in “Italian Steakhouse.” The fritto misto was large. More importantly, it was good. Lightly fried zucchini, lemon wheels, artichokes and hot, pickled peppers filled the basket. Interwoven throughout the vegetables were rings and tentacles of fried squid. Sofia’s marinara sat in the middle. I have to admit that I have zero willpower when it comes to fritto misto and if I see it on a menu, I will always order it and I will always eat it all. To me, it is a perfect starter in its candor and limitless template. The seafood can be anything as well as the vegetables. More than a set of rules, fritto misto is an idea. Sofia got this right.
The list of starters goes on. Provolone stuffed long-hot peppers and beef polpette are some of the other Italian options to enjoy while cognac lobster tail and a simple caesar salad make up what would be considered steakhouse classics in my eyes.
Then came time to order wine. Sofia boasts a thoughtful wine list that is decorated with inexpensive bottles as well as pricey exclusives aimed at aficionados. The grape selection is standard without falling short, and neither the by-the-glass list nor the bottle list feel neglected. Both are brimming with plenty of options. I went with a German Riesling and a Super Tuscan to pair respectively with my two entrees.
Cavatelli with shrimp, mint and broccolini as well as a dry-aged prime New York strip were on the menu for my second course. A side of creamed spinach was set to accompany the steak. Before I knew it, a white-coated gentleman was hauling a tray of food over to me. A hot, sizzling steak was placed before me. Glistening in beef fat, the aroma was that of dry-aged beef. Some people love the smell of flowers or freshly baked cookies, but me? Well, I like the smell of dry-aged beef. The lot. It is a cologne I am happy to wear for the remainder of the evening. And wear it you will as the steak sputters for minutes after arriving on a ripping hot plate. Maybe don’t wear white and think about long sleeves if you are particularly sensitive to the heat of bubbling fat.
All jokes aside, the strip was miraculous. Deep, unctuous char on the exterior and a tepid, medium rare interior is exactly how I hope all steaks to be when I order them. A bottle of steak sauce and a container of Maldon salt come as a sidecar to the meat. Steak sauce is nothing to scoff at either, it is tangy and backed up by a slight spice of horseradish. Like many famous chop houses of the world, Sofia has their own signature sauce. The meat was well seasoned, although my worn-out palate always yearns for more salt. Luckily, the flakes of salt arrive without request.
NY strip, which is a cut from the short loin of a cow, is basically always my go-to when ordering a steak for one (for two, porterhouse becomes my preferred option). It sits perfectly in the middle of a ribeye and filet—the north and south poles of steak eating. Less fatty than a ribeye, though more convoluted and complex than the often flavorless filet mignon. People like to say that ribeye is the steak that “real steak eaters eat.” Blasphemy, I say. New York strip has always and will always be my favorite cut of beef. At Sofia, the strip is the platonic ideal of a steak. Its picture should be featured next to the dictionary definition.
The pasta too was impressive. A bowl of cavatelli is showered with shrimp and broccolini. Mint and chili bring both herbaceousness and a slight spice to the party, while a crunchy, toasted breadcrumb rounds everything out. It was diverse both in flavor and texture. The shrimp, which are so often overcooked in pasta, were tender and pleasant on the palate. It was the perfect choice for a lighter entree option. Juxtaposed with the steak, it proved that the kitchen staff at Sofia is well-versed.
Sofia carries options of luxury as well. Imperial Osetra and Kaluga caviars are available as add-ons to your dinner. A seafood tower replete with oysters, lobster and more screams “haute cuisine” to onlookers. Steak and pasta aren’t the only options. Roasted chicken, whole branzino and Colorado lamb chops are just some of the many other options to be enjoyed at Sofia.
For dessert, I reveled in a tiramisu. This was special. The lady fingers were amply soaked in espresso and liqueur, but it was the mascarpone cream that was irresistible. I took my first bite and what seemed like 20 seconds later, the entire bowl was finished. It wasn’t a classic tiramisu, as it was deconstructed and seemingly built to order, but it didn’t leave me missing anything at all. Paired with a Cynar or perhaps a dessert wine, it is something one might describe as “to die for.”
Although I did not participate, Sofia offers a cigar lounge to guests on the restaurant’s lower level. In their cigar lounge, smoking is allowed, making Sofia one of the few restaurants in NJ with a license to do so. Here, guests can order off the full menu and enjoy some of the rarest whiskeys and finest cigars that you can find in the US If ever I hit the lottery, steak, caviar, a cigar and whiskey in Sofia’s basement might have to be my first Stop.
If you are averse to the smell of smoke while eating, you can take comfort in knowing that the lounge is completely separate from the rest of the space and a complex air filtration system ensures that the odor does not invade the main dining room. Had I not known about the cigar lounge already, I would have been entirely oblivious to its existence.
Sofia offers a classic steakhouse feel without feeling overdone or like a cheap copycat. They allow the classics like slab bacon and dry aged chops to shine in their simplicity and leave the risk-taking for pastas and other inventive dishes on the menu. Like true craftsmen, the team at Sofia knows exactly what to do and when to do it. Whether it’s the pristine food or the encyclopedic selection of spirits and wine, Sofia proves to be a step ahead of the pack. The second that bubbling, intoxicating strip was slid in front of me, I knew this restaurant to be special.