It’s 9 p.m. on a Wednesday.
If you think that means you’ll be eating alone at Uncle Vinnie’s Clam Bar at 5 E. Somerset St. in Raritan, you’re wrong.
Instead, the 50-seat restaurant, which serves fresh seafood with an Italian slant to about 1,000 people a week and 200 on a busy Saturday night, will be packed, as it is every night of the week.
Uncle Vinnie’s, which has been a staple of Raritan since 1989, prides itself on community involvement and compassion, which may partially be the reason for its loyal following.
“We are really invested in the lifestyle of our clients,” said Lois Ricci, general manager of the family-owned establishment, one of family’s three operators who is always on-site. “My family has a very hands-on involvement with the restaurant’s customers. We know what ballpark their grandkids are playing at that night.”
Obviously, however, this is only part of the reason for their success. The other part is the fresh-from-the-boat seafood cooked up in the kitchen, embellished as varying seasonal specials every night of the week.
“We do fillets over pasta, a homemade marinara sauce and a lot of garlic, for sure. You should smell like garlic when you leave,” said Ricci.
Next door, Uncle Vinnie’s also operates a market next door, which is BYO and does to-go orders.
Ricci said that Uncle Vinnie’s offers a freshness, quality and “a comfortable feeling” which keeps guests coming back and saying, “This is just like my mom used to make” and keeps college students itching to come home for a taste of the restaurant’s homemade sauce.
“You’re not going to a chain,” she added. “Essentially you’re coming to our house. We are happy to host people in our second home.”
The operation started at home, too – the restaurant was formerly run by a cousin and Ricci worked there as a summer employee after her father and the now-owner, Lou Malenchek, told her that she “better get a summer job.” Malenchek, as a silent partner in the restaurant, became more and more involved until he took it over in 2007.
Supposedly, the original owner had an Uncle Vinnie.
Every day, fresh fish come in from the New Fulton Fish Market in New York, but being a Central Jersey seafood restaurant does present its challenges.
Ricci said that because Raritan is landlocked, people don’t associate Raritan with seafood, but she said that there is a definitely an association between Raritan and Italian food since it is largely an Italian-American community.
However, those that do know Uncle Vinnie’s love to head there in the summertime for a Shore dinner without the Parkway drive.
For another Shore taste, the seafood-hungry can now straight east to neighboring Somerville to Boulevard Seafood Company and Conlin’s Bakery at 49 W. Main St. in Somerville, which opened on April 5.
The restaurant is the first expansion for the Boulevard Restaurant Group which was founded in 2006 and also operates BoulevardFive72, restaurant and banquet facility at 572 Boulevard in Kenilworth.
“The seafood restaurant was opened because of the lack of seafood restaurants in the area and the large amount of new construction in the town itself,” said Scott Snyder, chef and owner of Boulevard Seafood, who runs the project with his wife, Allison.
Snyder is a Culinary Institute of America (CIA) alumnus and a 25-year veteran in the industry and Allison also is a CIA graduate and a former corporate food and beverage sales manager at the World Trade Center Marriott.
Snyder runs a wholesale division that directly sources fish from the New Fulton Fish Market, which allows him the advantage of getting the best product available, since he is the supplier as well as the distributor. Snyder said that he mostly purchases East Coast fish for both restaurants, all of which came in the very day it was sold.
The restaurant is an eatery as well as an attached market, which sells locally and internationally harvested fish, shellfish, octopus, prepared seafood-based soups, seasoned fish fillets, crab cakes, salmon cakes, dressings, rubs, oils and seafood salads.
An open kitchen is the focal point of the 70-seat restaurant, with counter seating and bistro height tables for views of the cooking and expediting lines. Outdoor seating for 30 is also available for the warmer months.
“The feedback from customers has been very positive,” Snyder said. “The one I get the most is on how fresh everything is and that there is nothing like this restaurant in Somerville.”
FRESH SEAFOOD IN CENTRAL JERSEY
Uncle Vinnie’s Clam Bar is at 5 E. Somerset St. in Raritan and can be reached at 908-526-9887 or atunclevinniesclambar.com.
Boulevard Seafood Company is l at 49 W. Main St, Somerville and can be reached at 908-722-3300 or atboulevardseafood.com.