At Évero Spezia, Eclectic Dishes and Astounding Bargains
Chef Damian Durnin brings a special fondness for Italian food to his Newark restaurant, as well as influences from far beyond the motherland.
Calamari appetizer.//Photo by Javy Diaz
A central fact of the restaurant biz: Most people do most of their dining at the same places most of the time. Those places tend to be reasonably priced and close to home, so any new restaurant that wants to survive the long haul needs to build a core of local regulars right out of the box.
That puts chef Damian Durnin in a somewhat challenging position: While forging an identity for the new Évero Spezia, he still must please former regulars of the old Soffritto Italian restaurant, which once occupied the same space. Hence the name of the new place, the aesthetic refresh, and the offering of pasta dishes and pizzas—though the influences are more cosmopolitan than appearances might lead one to believe.
His meatballs, for example, are made with ground Wagyu beef. You won’t find them on the regular menu. Durnin offers them as specials, which allows him to signal a new approach to food and maintain the integrity of Évero Spezia while nudging the Soffritto gang toward something different.
But if you’ve never been, let’s not approach Évero Spezia with any preconceptions, because what Durnin is doing there deserves to be considered on its own terms. He offers Newark—which now has, arguably, the most international dining scene in the state—something unique and good and, at times, amazingly well priced.
Durnin brings to the task experience from around the world. Trained in classic French techniques and styles at school in Dublin, he worked kitchens in five-star hotels in Ireland and Switzerland while traveling extensively in Italy. He also worked at the Neal Street Restaurant in London, one of the best Italian places in the world outside Italy, before it launched celebrity chef Jamie Oliver to fame. Durnin finally landed in the States 20 years ago, where he added to his résumé stints at the Columbus Inn, back when the 1492 Group owned it, and at the esteemed Krazy Kats in Montchanin.
Tuna tartare.//Photo by Javy Diaz
That wide-ranging experience and perspective comes to bear on Évero Spezia as a menu that Durnin himself can describe only as “eclectic American.” Roughly translated, that means influenced by culinary traditions far beyond America and Italy. A crudo of large Diver scallops gets its Asian accent from yuzu and lemongrass. A kabob of lamb and veal mixed in the meatball style called kofta is served with Korean barbecue sauce. The menu turns toward the continental via a pleasantly tangy tuna tartare with shallots, capers and cornichons, as well as a bowl of littleneck clams with smoky pork belly in a broth of white wine with sweet fennel, roasted garlic and scallions. Crispy fried cauliflower served with capers and zingy green goddess dipping sauce—a highlight of our visit—points toward the fare of London’s gastropub movement.
Everything comes from a scratch kitchen that has neither microwave ovens nor freezers. The pappardelle, linguine, ravioli and other pastas are made by hand. Bread is baked every day. Many of the meats are hand-cut. And Durnin personally hangs the beef, which allows Évero Spezia to offer a peerless burger, as well as a 16-ounce dry-aged certified Angus rib-eye for $38. The same would fetch $70 at a decent steakhouse. A similarly outrageous bargain: Steamed 1.5-pound Maine lobsters are $16 on Thursday nights. At that price, they could be doused in ketchup and still be worth every penny.
From left: The 16-ounce, dry-aged certified Angus rib-eye with pommes frites; the carbonara. //Photos by Javy Diaz
One last price bears mentioning for example—but with a caveat. Good carbonara rarely appears on local menus, mainly because it is no easy trick to make well. A blend of egg with extra yolk and cream lightly tossed with just-cooked noodles, it should feel like satin. Évero Spezia’s version, though flavorful, felt more like paste, and it glued together ribbons of pappardelle that otherwise, I am sure, would have been ethereal.
That won’t deter me from ordering it again. The dish was topped with half a dozen jumbo shrimp that were tender, moist and fresh, and another half dozen of perfectly seared scallops. The sauce may have been an unfortunate lapse—that can happen in the best of places at any time—but you couldn’t buy the seafood at the store for the $18 price of the dish.
The duck breast is served with a homemade preserve of blackberries and figs.//Photo by Javy Diaz
But don’t let talk of prices cheapen the experience. From the list of five non-pasta entrées, we enjoyed a duck breast served with a homemade preserve of blackberries and figs that was seared to a ruby medium-rare. The accompanying asparagus was fresh and pleasantly al dente. But the star was the duck-fat polenta on the side. Rich and smooth, it tied together all parts of the dish deliciously. Other combinations—the aforementioned rib-eye in red-eye demi with pommes frites, pan-roasted chicken with herb butter and potato hash and the like—seem equally solid.
Those who want their Italian will find a small but thoughtful list of items such as ravioli filled with cambazola, truffle and porcini mushrooms, as well as fettuccine Arrabiata. Évero Spezia offers the requisite personal pizza with toppings from fresh basil to pesto to cured meats and egg. In keeping with its commitment to craft and a manageably sized menu, the beer taps cover a range of styles by popular small breweries, and the wine list of about 40 bottles spans the globe and the spectrum of varietals.
Trite as it may sound, all of that adds up to something for everyone. Évero Spezia’s menu of Italian may not go as deep as others, but it is Italian enough, with enough other stamps on its passport to interest those in an area rich with restaurants that specialize in almost every ethnic cuisine imaginable. The overall variety is great enough to keep anyone interested over the long term. That seems a good strategy for a new place that is eager to make lasting friends.