Lately, the hotly contested issue on everyone’s minds — and tongues — is immigration.
However, those living in the Ironbound, also known as Down Neck and a part of Newark’s East Ward, have a different perspective than many other Americans.
“Everyone is an immigrant here,” said Vince Baglivo, communications director at the Ironbound Business Improvement District.
The Ironbound has been an Italian and Polish neighborhood, but over time, it has changed into one with overwhelming Portuguese, Spanish and Brazilian traditions, as well as one with Central and South American influence.
Even though the Ironbound, which is home to over 500 businesses, is rooted in immigrant traditions with authentic restaurants, shops and things to do — mostly Portuguese, making it a ‘pedaco,’ or piece, of Portugal — by no means is the section trapped in the past. Instead, the area takes a modern spin to its world-class sports scene, entertainment venues and culinary experience.
With over 170 restaurants in the Ironbound, those with and without Portuguese descent flock to the neighborhood for quality fare.
Some of the popular restaurants in the Ironbound include Portugalia Bar and Restaurant, Iberia Peninsula Restaurant and Sol-Mar for authentic Portuguese cuisine, the Spanish Tavern for a more formal dining experience, Catas Restaurant for empanadas with a contemporary touch, and Sabor Unido for a traditional Portuguese meal.
“People like to go to the restaurants they are most comfortable with and have been going to for years, but we are encouraging them to explore,” said Baglivo. “There are many new restaurants owned by young restaurateurs who are keeping their traditions alive but spinning them in a new way.”
Campino Restaurant has about 1,600 visitors per week, of which 40 percent are Portuguese. The restaurant has recently been renovated, so it’s more polished but still has a traditional feel with its hand-painted tiles and Portuguese servers, many of whom speak Portuguese.
Olivia Borges, director of imports at Campino Restaurant, said, “A new generation of immigrants are heading here to eat because there is a huge variety of cuisine. You can get anything like Portuguese, Brazilian, American, Japanese and Chinese food in the Ironbound.”
“Portuguese food is so good,” said Seth Grossman, executive director of the Ironbound Business Improvement District. “If you come here to get a food product, it’s going to take a bit longer to get it because the Portuguese put a little love in everything they make.”
It isn’t just dinnertime that brings in people of Portuguese descent and otherwise to the area. Some come once a month from all over the East Coast to shop for food and other items.
Some of the popular shops in the Ironbound are Pegasus, a soccer store that sells official soccer jerseys; Portugalia, which sells authentic Portuguese paraphernalia and hard-to-find cooking utensils; C S Cork, which sells handbags and accessories made from cork; Brazilian clothing stores; and Portuguese jewelry stores that sell high-quality European gold and filigree, a jewelry style featuring thin gold wire woven into large, intricate patterns.
For fresh food items to take home, visitors can head to Seabras for authentic Portuguese food products, Teixeira’s Bakery for baked goods, Victor’s Fish Market for fresh fish flown in from Portugal every Thursday, Lope’s Sausage (which supplied the Clinton White House while he was president) and Lisbon Liquors, which sells fine wines made from indigenous Portuguese grapes as well as high-quality 100-year-old wines locked behind an iron gate in the back.
While wandering through the Ironbound, visitors should also stop by historic Saint Stephen’s Church, which made a cameo in the “War of the Worlds” 2005 remake, as well as the scenic Riverbank Park, where people can hop on a boat tour of the Passaic River.
Nuno Santos of the Basking Ridge section of Bernards, who moved from Portugal to New Jersey 22 years ago when he was 8, visits the Ironbound about once a month for authentic Portuguese fare or to pick up fresh fish, sausage, vegetables and pastries.
“I enjoy going to the Ironbound because it gives me the feel of the old country,” he said. “I can get fresh food that tastes like it has love baked into it, speak Portuguese with the locals and shop for Portuguese-brand foods at the markets. The area has the close-knit community vibe of going out to a café after dinner with your friends and neighbors and grabbing an espresso.”
It has been estimated that more than 40 ethnic groups live in the Ironbound. With about 50,000 total residents, about 35 percent of the Ironbound’s current population has Portuguese descent.
“We have seen anecdotally and factually that a lot of people have moved here with dreams of living in the city but found its cost prohibitive,” said Baglivo. “They are able to find affordable apartments in the Ironbound that are walking distance to transportation.”
Part of the reason that immigrants have flocked to the Ironbound is its position as a transportation hot spot, close to Newark Liberty International Airport, New Jersey Transit and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PATH).
“You can get anywhere in the world from the Ironbound,” said Grossman. “That’s why we are very connected to immigrants. The Ironbound delivers the American dream — there is a lot of work and the ability to connect to various markets.”
This trait also serves as the Ironbound’s namesake, known as such because it is surrounded by railroad tracks and is bordered by several major highways. Also, this helped the Ironbound escape some of the economic decline that the rest of Newark faced — highways went around it rather than through it.
Although the area has its share of problems, the Ironbound is one of Newark’s most vibrant neighborhoods and has consistently held the perception of being welcoming, clean and having relatively safe streets, bringing in visitors who otherwise wouldn’t travel to Newark.
“You can only develop Jersey City and Hoboken so far,” said Baglivo. “Newark is a blank canvas that is primed for redevelopment to happen. If the Ironbound can be the introduction for people to experience Newark, then that’s fantastic.”
WHERE TO EAT
- Portugalia Bar and Restaurant at 280 Ferry St.; 973-465-0696
- Iberia Peninsula Restaurant at 63-69 Ferry St.; 973-344-5611, iberiarestaurants.com
- Sol-Mar at 267 Ferry St.; 973-344-3041, solmar-restaurant.com
- Spanish Tavern at 103 Mc Whorter St.; 973-589-4959, spanishtavernnewark.com
- Catas Restaurant at 538 Market St.; 973-491-5400, precatas.com
- Sabor Unido at 77 Jefferson St.; 973-368-8553, saborunido.com
- Seabra’s Marisqueira at 87 Madison St.; 973-465-1250, seabras-marisqueira.com
WHERE TO SHOP
- Pegasus Sporting Goods at 101 Ferry St.; 973-589-3510
- Seabras Foods at 123 Ferry St.; 973-466-3560, seabras-marisqueira.com
- Portugalia Sales at 109 Ferry St., 973-589-1416, portugalia.com
- Lisbon Liquors at 114 Ferry St.; 973-344-0139, lisbonliquors.com
- Teixeira’s Bakery at 186 Ferry St.; 973-344-4902
- C S Cork at 67 Jefferson St.; 973-344-4423, cscork.com
- Lope’s Sausage at 304 Walnut St.; 973-344-3063
- Victor’s Fish Market at 109 Adams St.; 973-589-2384
WHERE TO VISIT
- Saint Stephen’s Church at Ferry St. and Wilson Ave.
- Riverbank Park at 27 Somme St.; 973-368-8737, riverbankpark.org
- Red Bull Arena at 600 Cape May St., Harrison; 973-268-8420, newyorkredbulls.com
- New Jersey Performing Arts Center at 1 Center St.; 973-642-8989, njpac.org
- Prudential Center at 25 Lafayette St.; 973-757-6600, prucenter.com