By Gary Sprengel
Rumors first started spreading last May of “a little restaurant” Down Neck being planned by the savvy minds behind Sihana Cafe. Italian was the word on the street, which is all this one-quarter Italian guy from Harrison had to hear! I’ve long bemoaned the lack of restaurants in Newark focusing on my paternal great-grandfather’s homeland, so I made it my business to eagerly follow the progress of this new venture. Nine months of social media teasers later, Five Corners Ristorante opened on Valentine’s Day in a handsome brick building at the famed Ferry, Wilson, and Merchant crossroads from where it takes its name. Anticipation had built to a fever pitch, and the community immediately embraced Sihana’s new sister restaurant.
Five Corners is the newest creative and culinary endeavor from Sihana’s Kreshnik Berisha, Dato Khabuliani, Gabe Ribeiro, and chef Kevin Kopaliani. Their goal is to pay homage to the rich history of Italian-Americans in both the Ironbound and Newark at large with fine dining in an approachable atmosphere. Homemade pastas and a curated wine menu will be mainstays. Kopaliani studied under 2-Star Michelin Chef Charbel Aoun, developing expertise in Italian, French, and other Mediterranean cuisines. Master mixologists Manny Antunes and Raul Figueiredo, friends of the owners, helped devise the original cocktail list, but intoxicating new updates are to be expected. I’m told the menu will also evolve over time, with daily and weekly specials, along with a prix fixe lunch menu to be introduced soon.
So let’s cut to the chase here. How did I like Five Corners? In a word, sensational! Everything from start to finish left me impressed. It lived up to the hype, which is somewhat rare for me. I was anxious to go within the first week it was open. My cousin, a frequent visitor to Italy, was anxious to partake in the sampling. We tried just walking in on what we thought might be a slower Monday around 8pm and were met with a packed house. Bad for us, good for them! I later learned Mayor Baraka was there that night.
Two days later and armed with reservations, my cousin and I were greeted warmly as soon as we entered and offered our choice of table or booth. Never one to pass up a booth, I was already excited to have snagged one of only three in the place. The space is not that large, seating roughly 40–45 people along with room for eight at the bar, but its layout feels more open than it is. I’ve been in bigger spaces where I’m way too cramped. The half-circle booths, which face the bar, are roomy yet cozy, which sums up the general feel of Five Corners. Newark-based Bad Studio designed the restaurant with input from the owners and deserve a lot of credit. The vibe is definitely modern, with neutral tones, a sleek black tile bar, wavy tile wall and a quartz stone bar counter and tables. Five Corners’ lighting is perfectly on point, which is to say not glaring like a prison cafeteria, but instead low and moody. At the same time, the large windows allow for a lot of warm natural light during daylight hours. The backlit bar shelves are also a nice touch. Lastly, small votive candles and fresh flowers grace each table.
I felt like the Newark cocktail was the ideal drink for my first visit. Comprised of apple brandy, sweet vermouth, and Fernet, it was potent and very good. My cousin deemed her Aviation, featuring gin, lemon juice and creme de violette, fabulous. There are six other cocktails on the current menu for me to get back and work through. I was very pleased to see Newark Local Beer’s Eleanor and Yakima Delight on tap. Red wines outnumber the whites for the time being, and there are three spritz selections. Drink prices are on par with other upscale bars and restaurants in the area.
The focaccia, baked daily at Sihana, was so good we asked for a second basket. Dipping sauce and three types of olives came out with it. I’ve never been an olive guy, but I had all three of them and was impressed. My cousin and I shared the arancini in walnut sauce and burrata, which were both delicious. I could have had ten more risotto balls. Appetizers range from $15 to $22. A couple of friends have raved about the grilled octopus. As someone who is not fond of much seafood, maybe a minor complaint would be wanting more non-fishy options. Mind you, I have no idea what I would suggest as I write this. Then again, there are five vegetable sides on the menu that are perfectly acceptable to me that I could treat as appetizers. I would love to see more salads and some soups added to the menu, as well.
My main dish was the $19 spicy vodka cavatelli, which came with grilled chicken. It was very tough choosing between that and the spaghetti bolognese or ravioli, but I was immensely happy with my decision. It was perfectly al dente, and I ate every last drop of it. The cavatelli amatriciana also tempted me. The various chicken dishes and grilled salmon all looked great, but if I’m at an Italian restaurant, I have to get my pasta. At the high end of things, there is a 32 oz. T-bone for two for $95 if that’s your cup of tea.
The $10 panna cotta for dessert was simply heavenly and worth every penny. It isn’t always easy pulling the consistency of that one off. Tiramisu and a brownie with vanilla ice cream are the other current sweet options. My cousin and I decided to go nuts and get espressos with sambuca to end the evening, which turned out to be another fine choice. I need to note that an extensive brunch menu also exists on Saturdays and Sundays that I’m going to need to check out soon.
I’m a details guy, and Five Corners Ristorante gets pretty much everything right. Let’s not overlook the hand-painted signage. As someone who used to be in the sign business, I very much appreciate that. The dishware and glassware is attractive and appropriate. The music is at a reasonable volume where you can hear your dinner companions. The service is top notch, attentive but not overbearing. We were able to relax and never felt rushed. This is a classy but not stuffy place. I’m always concerned about where I can get away with wearing my Yankees cap that is seemingly sewn to my head, and I can wear it at Five Corners, but it’s a place that inspires you to dress up a bit, too. It elevates Newark’s food and bar scene to a much needed higher level. Much is made of how the Ironbound often seems like a separate city from the rest of Newark, and maybe this is me overanalyzing, but Five Corners feels like a downtown spot on Wilson Avenue. It feels like a bridge between downtown and Down Neck. I wish them much success and look forward to my second visit.
Gary Sprengel is a Harrison native who fled to Amish Country, PA to obtain his BA in communications from Elizabethtown College. He enjoys photography, craft beer, wandering urban landscapes, and country music. He wrote dating blogs under a pseudonym for about a year and was once pulled onstage by Don Rickles in Atlantic City. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram @garysprengel
All photos by Gary Sprengel