Written and photographed by John Torsiello
It’s a warm, late spring morning and Bank Street in New Milford is buzzing with activity. There is an event taking place on The Green and people are wandering around this funky, chic section of town that includes Main Street and Railroad streets, an area that has grown into a hot destination, with its boutiques, restaurants, pubs and small stores.
Inside one of the newest hot spots at 31 Bank Street, the staff of Zaragoza is preparing for the lunch crowd. Overseeing the operation is owner Artie Praino, dressed nattily in a sport coat and exuding an air of confidence and control over the restaurant that opened its doors in late April. That he opened this, his first restaurant, may be viewed by some as a leap of faith for the 45-year-old, but he doesn’t see it that way.
“I believe when you are focused, know what you want to do and how to do it, and are at the business seven days a week like I am, you don’t get intimidated or nervous. I’ve been in the food business since I was a teenager, so it’s not new to me, although this is the first restaurant I have owned and run.”
Praino grew up in Queens, N.Y., and landed his first job at the Corona Park Pork Store, where he caught the attention of the owners, who proceeded to teach him almost every aspect of the business. In 1993, he opened up his own establishment, Bayside Salumeria, an Italian deli in Queens, which quickly became a favorite in the neighborhood. After he and his wife decided to leave Queens to raise their growing family in Newtown, he began to look for other opportunities. In 2001 he sold Bayside Salumeria and opened The Newtown Deli, a popular spot for families and local businesses seeking quality deli sandwiches, hot dishes, and catering. In 2006, he opened The Woodbury Deli (which he sold in 2009). In 2010 he opened The Sideline Café (at The Newtown Youth Academy) and, in 2013, The Sandy Hook Deli.
When an opportunity came to sell the delis in 2015, Praino believed it was time to open the restaurant he wanted: a warm and inviting eatery in New Milford that would feature exceptional drinks and quality food. He and his wife are particularly fond of tapas (basically well-made and unique appetizers), and believed this fashionable dining experience would do well in the area. When the chance to move into 31 Bank Street opened up, Praino jumped at it, naming the spot Zaragoza, after a small, picturesque city in northeastern Spain. In addition to tapas, the restaurant also features delectable craft cocktails.
Praino and his business partner and friend, William R. Hart, Jr. of Avon, who owns and manages several commercial and residential properties in Connecticut, Texas and Florida, gutted the interior of the space, uncovered brick walls that had been hidden, put in new lighting and seating, and created a subtly relaxed and inviting ambiance where diners are welcome to linger over tapas and cocktails. Ruperto Cardenas was brought in as head chef, leaving a similar post at The Foundry in Sandy Hook.
Tapas restaurants have become extremely popular in the U.S. Tapas envelop a wide variety of appetizers, or snacks, in Spanish cuisine. They may be cold or hot. In some restaurants, tapas have evolved into an entire, sophisticated cuisine. Patrons can order many different tapas and combine them to make a full meal. The serving of tapas is designed to encourage conversation, as diners are not focused upon eating an entire meal that is set before them. Tapas means “to cover” in Spanish and it is believed that the appetizers served a small dish were at one time used by patrons of taverns to cover the drinks with between sips.
“I think it’s a wonderful way to dine,” says Praino, as he sits at a table in his establishment. “When you go out for a big dinner, often you become so full the only thing you want to do after the meal is get up and go home. With tapas, the meal is slow and just part of the experience. It’s about having a drink or two, conversation, and enjoying various foods. We encourage diners to stay and enjoy themselves and not hurry away after eating. The tapas, even if you order three or four, are not brought out at the same time, but spaced out to encourage relaxation and conversation.”
Zaragoza presently has seating for 64, with a soon-to-be-opened outdoor patio which will offer seating for another 30 diners. “We believe the outdoor dining is going to be a hit,” says Praino. “People love to eat outdoors during the nice weather.”
Praino says success in the food business comes down to several important ingredients. “You have to have great food at a reasonable price and it has to be consistent. The latter may be the most crucial aspect of a restaurant. When people order a dish they want it to taste the same every time they come in.”
Zaragoza offers a multitude of tapas, including such traditional dishes as chicken, beef or pork empanadas served with salsa, potato, pancetta and corn croquette cakes served with Spanish crème, a cheese plate, and spicy shrimp. There are tapas featuring a variety of vegetables, pasta, such as pappardelle, a ribbon-like pasta served in a mushroom sherry cream sauce and topped with wilted arugula and pine nuts, and yucca fries and fried goat cheese with honey appetizers.
Zaragoza’s tapas include “Land” selections such as short ribs, slow cooked and served over a bed of pappardelle and topped with a port wine reduction, “Sea” choices, such as salmon roasted with parmesan and herb crust and drizzled with a creamy lobster sauce, and “Earth” tapas, embodied by artichokes stuffed with mascarpone cheese, wrapped in prosciutto and served over an orange sauce. In all there are around 60 tapas to choose from, as well as a multitude of custom cocktails.
Reception to Zaragoza has been encouraging, says Praino. “We have had great crowds. We have locals and people from Roxbury, Washington, Sherman and Southbury. And a lot of people from Newtown who know me and have come into the restaurant. We believe as word spreads people will travel from other towns to visit us.”
Hours are Monday through Thursday 5 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m to midnight, and Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Visit www.zaragozarestaurant.com for a full menu.