Life & Style
‘Let’s Go Out and Have a Good Time’
Bufalina in Guilford, owned and operated by the husband and wife team of Melissa Pellegrino and Matt Scialabba, is an example of the mom-and-pop type operations featured in Mike Urban’s new book, Unique Eats and Eateries of Connecticut. The menu is simple and pizza is the star of the show with a variety of salads and desserts in a supporting role. (Photo courtesy of Mike Urban)
In addition to restaurants, eateries like Fromage Fine Foods and Coffees in Old Saybrook also are featured in Mike Urban’s new book. Owned by Old Saybrook native Christine Chesanek, “This place is a cheese lover’s dream come true,” Urban says. (Photo courtesy of Mike Urban)
A research scientist, Jerry Mears, and his wife used to eat at Abbott’s Lobster in the Rough in Noank in the ‘70s and ‘80s and they loved the place. One day, they saw it was up for sale. “They took a wild stab at it,” Urban says. Now it’s world famous for its hot lobster rolls and more. (Photo courtesy of Mike Urban)
O’Rourke’s Diner in Middletown is a Phoenix that arose from the ashes of a devastating fire in 2006. “The place burned down to the ground. It should have been game, set, match, over,” says Mike Urban. “They didn’t have enough insurance. But the community loved it so much, all the people at Wesleyan and the Middletown community came together. They raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and they were able to build upon up on the same footprint. It’s a really heart-warming story and a cherished place. A classic mom and pop kind of place.” (Photo courtesy of Mike Urban)
Union League Café in New Haven “stands head and shoulders above virtually all restaurants in Connecticut and certainly is worth a special visit any time of year,” says Urban. (Photo courtesy of Mike Urban)
Mike Urban’s new book, Unique Eats and Eateries of Connecticut, will be featured in several upcoming talks on Thursdays—including one at Acton Public Library in Old Saybrook on Oct. 28, one at Essex Public Library on Nov. 4, and one at Guilford Public Library on Nov. 16. (Photo courtesy of Mike Urban)
A visit to New Britain calls for a visit to Staropolska, “in the beating heart of New Britain’s Little Poland neighborhood,” writes Urban. (Photo courtesy of Mike Urban)
Connecticut is blessed with a wealth of unique eats and eateries from its border with Massachusetts up north, all the way down to the shores of Long Island Sound.
The list of options seems endless.
Hot buttered lobster rolls, steamed cheeseburgers, New Haven-style pizza.
Lots of Italian places of course, but also Turkish restaurants, Polish diners, and a Vietnamese restaurant that proudly displays a mural highlighting the owners’ journey to their new home in America.
A caravan of food trucks parked along a wharf, dubbed “Food Truck Paradise,” features a dazzling array of Latin American food.
An authentic log house that offers family style dining and a world-class French brassiere that never fails to please with its impeccable service.
An inn in a Connecticut River town with roots that go back to 1776, and an upstart a few towns away that opened in 2017 and two years later was named the best restaurant in the state by the Connecticut Restaurant Association.
Mike Urban’s new book, Unique Eats and Eateries of Connecticut, which will be featured in several upcoming talks on Thursdays—including one at Acton Public Library in Old Saybrook on Oct. 28, one at Essex Public Library on Nov. 4, and one at Guilford Public Library on Nov. 16—highlights all of those and more. But it’s about more than just the food and the buildings that house the enterprises, more than just a list of places and menus. At its heart, the book pays tribute to the innovative, hard-working, and generous souls who have made it their lives’ work to serve and feed the public the food they love.
“These are stories about the people behind the food,” Urban says. “As I say in the introduction, most of these places in the book are mom-and-pop enterprises. They are organically unique. Maybe it’s a person, a couple, or a family, and they decide to open a restaurant. They develop their own style, they are serving their own community. That is the essence and core of good American regional dining.”
They Have Survived
Urban says the fact that these are mom-and-pop eateries might explain why, despite the fact that this project was planned in the before-times, most all of these places have survived the pandemic mostly intact.
“I originally had a list of 100 and got it down to 85,” he says. “Of those, only one closed, one in Norwich, which was a shame. All of the others, amazingly, stayed open. I was happy about that because we’ve all heard the horror stories.”
The Connecticut Restaurant Association reported that, in the first eight months of the pandemic alone, more than 600 restaurants closed their doors permanently. Many more hibernated during that winter, throwing thousands out of work.
Even worse, front line workers, including servers and line cooks, were among those at highest risk for being affected by COVID-19. Some got sick. Some died. Some watched co-workers get sick or die as they dealt with belligerent customers who were reluctant to adhere to public health mandates. Many of those front-line workers found work in other industries. Many restaurants are still struggling with a shortage of people willing to return to the front lines in a restaurant.
“But many of the mom and pops survived,” Urban said. “I’m not sure exactly why. Lower overhead? Maybe they somehow could better afford the shutdown than the big, multi-chain restaurants?”
Regardless of the reason, Urban sounds relieved about that, for the book itself was as much a labor of love as a commercial enterprise for him. He’s met with a great deal of success and renown as a food writer, editor, and book packager. He’s written four other books and is regular contributor to Yankee magazine. And he’s candid about his gratitude toward his wife, Ellen, who is the steady paycheck in the family and his “favorite dining companion of all time.” This book is dedicated to her.
His gratitude extends to his other frequent dining companions, many of whom insist on picking up the check.
“There’s Sylvia, my sister-in-law; she came along on a lot of the meal junkets my wife and I went on,” he says. “And she helped pay for a lot! She is retired from the financial world in Chicago and a fun person to go out with.”
He is also grateful for the enthusiasm and support he received from Nancy Creel of Guilford and her husband Alan Gross.
Urban ate often with his friend Alan, who lives with early onset Alzheimers.
“He became a good friend and we would go out to eat often,” Urban says. “He’s in bad shape now. But we had a lot of fun over four or five years. He was a great guy to go out and dine with. We’d laugh and eat and hike and bike.”
While it can be hard to make a full-time steady living as a food writer, Urban says it’s all about the research.
“That’s what this is all about. Even if they decided not to publish the book, mission accomplished,” he says of all his culinary adventures and good times with friends and family as they were welcomed by the various mom-and-pop establishments, and got to know the owners. “I do it as a labor of love. I love traveling. I love taking photos. I love meeting people. And, while you might not believe this, I love eating.”
There are many, many establishments along the Connecticut shoreline and in the Connecticut river valley listed, including 22 in New Haven County, which Urban calls “Yale Country,” and 15 in Middlesex County/Connecticut River valley.
But, for those of us who live in those restaurant-rich areas, this book is also a call to adventure, to explore beyond the safe territory of the same-old, same-old beloved places we rely upon.
With that in mind, I asked Urban to tell me his favorites statewide.
He demurred in the same way a parent might if you asked about his favorite children.
“Yeah,” he says. “I don’t know if I want to name any.”
Instead, in the interest of highlighting the variety in the book, he does feature some eateries on the back of the book.
Abbott’s Lobster in the Rough, 117 Pearl Street, Noank is world famous. A research scientist, Jerry Mears, and his wife used to eat there in the ‘70s and ‘80s and they loved the place. One day, they saw it was up for sale.
“They took a wild stab at it,” Urban says. “They said, ‘Let’s run with it.’ He got out of the research scientist business and into the restaurant business.”
Then his daughter took over. And then her daughter took over.
“Father, daughter, daughter,” Urban says.
Agreeing to Disagree...
Then he and I find we must agree to disagree on something.
Having grown up in the Midwest with cold lobster rolls, and not many of those at that, I fell head over heels in love with hot lobster rolls many, many years ago when I had my first bite of an Abbott’s hot lobster roll, while sitting on the rocky shores of Long Island Sound. I’ve been faithful to hot lobster rolls ever since.
Urban favors cold lobster rolls with mayo, particularly those he’s enjoyed up in Maine with freshly caught lobster.
“I get in a lot of trouble here in Connecticut,” he admits.
Which is as it should be.
Still, he loves Abbott’s.
“It is one of my favorite places,” he says. “They have great lobster...”
He also mentions the famous O’Rourke’s Diner, 728 Main Street, Middletown, which is literally a Phoenix that arose from the ashes of a devastating fire in 2006.
“The place burned down to the ground. It should have been game, set, match, over,” Urban said. “They didn’t have enough insurance. But the community loved it so much, all the people at Wesleyan and the Middletown community came together. They raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and they were able to build upon up on the same footprint. It’s a really heart-warming story and a cherished place. A classic mom and pop kind of place.”
And then there’s Union League Café, 1032 Chapel Street, New Haven. We both agree wholeheartedly on this one. While pricey enough to be saved for special occasions, it is worth every penny. Never, ever a bad meal. Always great service. Always a great experience.
If food is love, which it is, then it’s also true that having a meal out is an important part of any date night, whether with family and friends, a loved one, or maybe just even treating yourself to a special night out.
With that in mind, I asked Urban to recommend some places that had entertainment venues or other attractions nearby. Sometimes it’s more fun to make a day of it or a full night out, and knowing about a fun restaurant nearby is part of that equation.
• If you’re going to the Palace Theater, 100 East Main Street, Waterbury? “Waterbury has lots of great Italian,” Urban says. “But one place that’s different and unique is Sultan’s” Turkish Restaurant, 586 Plank Road, Waterbury. “It’s right by I-84 and across from the mosque. The food is quite good and there is belly dancing on Saturday nights. There’s a beautiful dining room with a big mural of the Bosporus.”
• How about the Stamford Center for the Arts, 61 Atlantic Avenue, Stamford? Urban says to consider trying Barcelona Wine Bar, 222 Summer Street, which, while not listed in his book, is right around the corner. “It’s a chain of sorts, but still very good for quality casual dining,” he says.
• If I wanted to go to The Wadsworth Atheneum, 600 Main Street, Hartford or The Bushnell Performing Arts Center, 166 Capitol Avenue, Hartford? Urban says he might opt for Black-Eyed Sally’s, 350 Asylum Street, for southern barbecue and live blues. On Sundays, the southern brunch is sometimes lifted up with a gospel performance. Urban also recommends Restaurant Bricco, 78 Lasalle Street, in West Hartford. While one town over and not listed in his book, he says it’s a great place for a lunchtime repast.
• He has one more recommendation for Hartford, The Parkville Market, 1400 Park Street, Hartford, “a restaurant bazaar in an old factory building,” as he describes it in his book, with more than 20 food stands with cuisines that include Jamaican, Twisted Italian, Brazilian, Indian with a bit of Cantonese, Puerto Rican, a crab shack, and poke bowls.
• The White Memorial Wildlife Conservation Center, 80 Whitehall Road, Litchfield? Arethusa al tavolo, 828 Bantam Road, Bantam. “You’ll need reservations,” he says. “But it’s a really nice upscale restaurant.”
• The New Britain Museum of Art, 56 Lexington Avenue, New Britain? “That’s an easy one,” he says. “Staropolska,” 252 Broad Street, New Britain. “That’s a Polish restaurant that speaks to the character of the town.”
And what other advice does he have, after having written this guide to culinary adventures in Connecticut?
“Just pick one. And go out and eat there. Get out there and support your local restaurants, especially the mom-and-pop places. Yes, things have slowed down and yes we were frightened by the pandemic. But eating out is one of the great experiences in life. Go with your partner. Your spouse. With family. With friends. Even by yourself. But let’s keep supporthing these places. Let’s keep going out and having a good time.”