When the fires of industry burned hottest in the Valley’s manufacturing heyday, immigrants came in great numbers to work in the region’s many factories and pursue better lives. As increasing numbers of groups such as Italians and Poles arrived, restaurants and food shops opened to cater to their needs.
The industrial flames have faded considerably in recent decades, but many beloved, immigrant-rooted eateries have endured, feeding generations of Valley residents while attracting the attention of people across the state. Featuring a great lineup of Italian joints and the best Polish food this side of New Britain, here are the spots to check out in the Valley.
This hole in the wall in a tiny strip mall on River Road has the feel of an old-world Polish market. Traditional food such as pierogies and potato pancakes abound, but there are also hard-to-find items and quite possibly the best nut roll you’ll find anywhere. They also make their own kielbasa, pickles, sauerkraut, mustard and more. You’ll get personal attention because it’s such a small shop and, for the customers who are fluent, you can handle your business in Polish. If this type of cuisine was part of your childhood, this is definitely a “like grandma used to make” kind of place.
Hosting a World Cup party this summer? Italy might not have qualified this year (the same can be said for the U.S.), but you can still load up on Italian staples at this neighborhood deli. Party trays that serve 12-15 people include stuffed shells, meatballs and many varieties of chicken. Serving the Valley for more than 35 years, Mattei’s also specializes in an array of hot and cold grinders. Highlights are the chicken cutlet, capicola and provolone, and the signature sub, eggplant parmigiana, which might just win over even the most hardened eggplant deniers.
This downtown bakery closed last summer before being resurrected five months later under the direction of new owner Arlene Cardenas, an Ansonia native who also owns Marjolaine Pastry Shop in New Haven. Before it reopened, Eddy’s Bake Shop got a new paint job and some new recipes, but it offers the various ethnic, baked delicacies for which the classic spot has long been known, including the jelly- and fruit-filled doughnuts known as paczki. During a recent visit, we were excited and surprised to find rare — in Connecticut, at least — Jewish pastries such as hamantaschen (triangular pastries made around the holiday Purim) and rugelach (a traditional rolled pastry), in addition to a full assortment of cookies and cakes.
Loosely translated, the name of this establishment means warm-hearted in Italian. It’s also a mash-up of the last names of the owners — Mathew Calandro and his wife Kelly (maiden name Rosso). Located in the building that was previously home to Center Stage Theatre, this fantastic spot opened in 2012 has received accolades in these pages before — it was one of our picks (under its original name, Verace) for Best Neighborhood Restaurants in our 2013 “Best of Connecticut” feature. In the mood for New Haven-style pizza but not New Haven-style traffic? The nicely charred, thin-crust pies at Caloroso provide another Valley option for (almost) everybody’s favorite food. There’s also a solid selection of draft beer and, in warmer months, outdoor seating with a long, rectangular fire table and flaming torches.
Naugatuck, 203-729-9470; Oxford, 203-888-2800
While a trio of Italian immigrant brothers opened the first iteration of Nardelli’s as a market in Waterbury in 1922, the sandwich shop truly came into its own when it opened its Naugatuck location in the late ’70s. Today it’s the flagship store for 13 franchise locations across western and central Connecticut, including one in Oxford. The shop offers hot specialties such as stuffed eggplant parmigiana and cavatelli, about a dozen types of salads ranging from its signature tossed salad to the cavatelli and broccoli salad, and an assortment of desserts. But with 20 hot and 19 cold varieties, the grinders are the real show. And the star is the Italian combo with pruzitini, capicola, salami and provolone. Try it with Nardelli’s “classic mix” of marinated diced veggies and a dash of hot sauce.
The quintessential example of New Haven pizza outside of New Haven proper, Roseland Apizza has been a beloved destination both in the Valley and far beyond it for decades. Nestled in a neighborhood setting not far off Route 34, this old-school Italian restaurant with an eye-catching neon sign offers pies in a variety of flavors as well as classic, big, family-style examples of Italian cuisine, including a highly recommended eggplant parmigiano.
As a living testament to the strong influence Polish immigrants have had on towns throughout the Valley, the Europol Deli in downtown Ansonia boasts a bevy of Polish import products that aren’t easy to come by otherwise, and a deli menu replete with delicious Polish food. We recommend the Polish platter off the lunch menu, where for $8.99 you can get a veritable feast of kielbasa, sauerkraut, pierogies and stuffed cabbage. Europol also does catering if you have any gatherings of homesick family members. (If you’re a Polish immigrant or first-generation American, you probably already know about Europol, but if not, it’s time to get acquainted.) Hallmark of a vibrant immigrant community? There are Polish newspapers and magazines for sale.
Another Polish deli, with much the same selection as Europol, but like much in the Valley, you have a Derby option and an Ansonia option. Lasowiak offers a similar array of cured meats and sausages known to Polish and Hungarian cuisine. There is also, of course, a selection of soups, breads, and anything to soothe your Pole soul.
Beacon Falls, 203-729-8882
You can be forgiven if you don’t know much about Beacon Falls, which has the smallest population in the region and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it downtown. But just off Route 8 and at the northern edge of the town’s main drag is this hidden gem of an Italian eatery. While the space is on the small side, the portions of old-country comfort food are large at Antonio’s and ideal for sharing. A fun appetizer is the lasagna poppers, fried pieces of the Italian favorite with marinara for dipping. You’ll have to decide for yourself if you’re willing to share the lobster baked penne with good-size pieces of meat and ricotta in a vodka sauce. And it will be difficult to not fill up on the bread, which is made fresh and served with butter, olive oil or hummus. Loaves are available for purchase if you just can’t get enough.
More stories from our tribute to the Lower Naugatuck River Valley: