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A new restaurant, Rossa Negra, debuts in East Lyme

When partners Jonny Gonzalez and Janeth Velin opened a new restaurant in East Lyme in December, they had a specific reason for choosing the name they did: Rossa Negra.

“Rossa negra is black rose,” Velin, who is originally from Ecuador, says. “It means a new beginning … It’s a new beginning not only for us, for our family, but it’s a new beginning after COVID. I think most people are changing how they are living their lives.”

Velin and Gonzalez opened the venue — offering international fusion cuisine and a juice bar — in a small strip mall off Route 161 in the Niantic section of East Lyme. It used to house The Best of Everything Country Gourmet, although you’d be hard-pressed to recognize it as the same space. It has morphed from a place that offered only prepared food to take home, into a fine-dining establishment with tables spread throughout, covered in elegant white cloths, and a central bar. A soft green is a prominent part of the color scheme, along with black and white.

In creating the Rossa Negra menu, Gonzalez used flavor profiles that are found in South America — particularly Ecuador, where Velin and Gonzalez grew up — and beyond. The Encocado de Pescado (fish with coconut sauce), for instance, includes both Latino achiote and Italian seasonings.

Gonzalez has long loved to cook, both professionally and personally. He had run a restaurant in North Branford for a few years, and when he was working in construction, he would whip up food when the couple would have gatherings for friends and family.

Jack Giuliano, who has operated Giuliano’s Bakery in Niantic for decades, was one of those friends, and was so impressed by Gonzalez’s dishes that he coaxed him to take the next step.

“I know that was his gift, cooking, and I encouraged him all the time — because I’ve known Jonny for a while — and said, ‘You need to open a restaurant and start cooking because that’s your gift,’” Giuliano says. He notes that Gonzalez had worked with chefs in New York City when he first came to this country; that was his training.

Giuliano say the flavors in Gonzalez’s creations are unusual, and his sauces are different from anything Giuliano has tasted anywhere else.

He says of Gonzalez’s cooking, “I haven’t had anything that I don’t like … It’s crazy.”

Other people offered similar recommendations that he open a restaurant, which helped prompt Gonzalez and Velin to consider creating a place where Gonzalez could be the head chef.

“There’s nothing like Jonny’s food around here,” Velin says.

Velin mentioned ceviche, a South American seafood dish that usually consists of fish cured with citrus juices. While there are plans to introduce the Peruvian version, too, at Rossa Negra, the ceviche Gonzalez prepares now is the Ecuadorian one, with shrimp, tomatoes, orange, lemon, cilantro, onions and a special shrimp broth with Latino spices.

“When you come here (to Rossa Negra) and have ceviche or something else, you travel to our country, you know? You feel it,” Velin says.

They are training the Rossa Negra staff to know about the Ecuadorian culture as well.

“That is our main goal in this business. It’s not only to give you an experience just eating. It’s giving you an experience to know what is here in this world that we are living (in),” she says.

On the menu

The appetizers on the menu range from crispy fried calamari ($18), Ecuadorian-style with capers, cherry peppers and tomatillos, to choripan ($18), a traditional South American sandwich with grilled chorizo sausage in a crusty roll and chimichurri sauce.

Among the array of main courses are Al Cesar Lo Que Es Del Cesar ($32), which is pan-seared filet mignon medallions, herbed black rice, grilled eggplant and brandy cream sauce; and Niantic Dances Flamenco ($35), with scallops, squid, shrimp, clams, mussels, salmon, green peas, piquillo peppers, chorizo and saffron rice.

Rossa Negra just opened a juice bar element as well. Velin had taken a course on juice therapy and during the pandemic shared with friends and family some recipes meant to improve the immune system, like ginger shots. She became interested in opening her own juice bar. When she and Gonzalez saw the vacant space where Rossa Negra is now, Gonzalez thought it would be a great spot to establish both his restaurant and her juice bar.

A couple of examples of the juice bar offerings: Niantic Sunrise, consisting of cucumber, apple, fresh ginger and mint leaf; and Beet D’Anemia, with spinach, red apple, parsley, lemon and beet. They are $9.99 for 16 oz. of these natural juice mixes.

Also available are smoothies, smoothie bowls, gourmet toast (such as Sun Up Toast, with avocado, hard-boiled egg, applewood smoked bacon and crème fraiche served on multigrain toast for $9.99) and salads bowls.

The duo decided to establish Rossa Negra in its current site in part because of the drive-through that already existed there. Some people, concerned about COVID, prefer to get takeout, and so the drive-through window was a welcome feature. (Velin notes that customers have, for instance, ordered fried calamari that they’ve picked up via the drive-through.)

Coming to America

Velin and Gonzelez knew each other before they moved to the U.S. in 2007; they came from the same province in Ecuador and met in high school.

They were reacquainted years later and became a blended family. Ten years ago, they moved from Branford to East Lyme, drawn in part by the good school system for their children. (The children are: Francinne Navas, now 22; Cesar Navas, 21; Bella Gonzalez, 21; Jonny Gonzalez Jr., 18; and Jose Navas, 17.)

Velin says, too, that East Lyme reminded her of her hometown of Macas, which was likewise small and quiet.

“When you want to open a business, you’re going to think first, where are you going to do this? This town give a lot to us,” Velin says. “ … We want to give to this town that has given us a lot.”

Velin is a former president of the Ecuadorian Cultural Civic Organization of Connecticut in New Haven, and she was involved in such social and cultural activities as the Ecuadorian Parade in New Haven and promoting Ecuadorian traditions and language to the young Latin generation here. She is still part of the group. She says she loves working with kids, teaching them Spanish and getting them involved in the arts.

Rossa Negra melds Gonzalez’s passion for food and Velin’s love of the culture.

In addition to the cuisine, Rossa Negra is featuring art by local artists. First on display are works by Carlos Torres Machado, who is Ecuadorian.

Velin says of the restaurant, "This is a place we create with a lot of love and sacrifice."

She adds, “Jonny and me are people that, if you do something, do it with love … Put everything in the project." 

If you go

What: Rossa Negra

Where: 214 Flanders Road, Niantic

Hours: Dining 4-9:30 p.m. daily; juice bar and lunch 10:30-3:30 p.m. daily; check Rossa Negra's Facebook page for any changes

Contact: (860) 850-4824, rossanegra.com

 

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