By Bonnie Cavanaugh
Denville Seafood and Codmother’s Café are a thriving combination in downtown’s food corridor, deftly serving up fresh fish to go or to dine in.
The local fish market and café—which features the town’s first sidewalk dining experience—started out 67 years ago, when Anthony Aguanno opened a local fish market on Main Street. Within the next year he would marry his beloved wife, Ann, and move his now-successful market to 61 Broadway, where it’s been since 1952.
Joe Aguanno, the current owner and Anthony’s son, says his dad’s lunch routine started everything.
“He would cook the fish for himself,” he notes. Workers at the market started asking him to cook for them, too. Soon the fish market customers were asking as well, and the store began to sell take-out meals.
A fire in early 1979 devastated the building, yet gave the Aguannos the chance to rebuild and to expand the business with a new seven-table restaurant. In 2001, the family celebrated the market’s 50-year anniversary by expanding the restaurant and tripling the number of tables, with 18 inside and six on the sidewalk café. This allowed for a menu redo as well, with more elaborate entrees.
Sadly, matriarch Ann Aguanno passed just two weeks before the renovations were complete. She had jokingly called her husband the “codfather” of the business, and so in her honor the new restaurant was named Codmother’s Café.
In 2005, Manhattan’s Fulton Fish Market—where Aguanno culls his fresh fish, anywhere from three to five days per week—moved to larger, refrigerated quarters at Hunt’s Point in the Bronx. This was a “codsend” to the Aguannos, as it meant fresher, better quality fish on hand, and more often.
But tragedy struck again in 2011, when flooding caused by Hurricane Irene left the downtown area floating in three-and-a-half feet of water. The restaurant building had to be completely reconstructed from the bottom up, calling for yet another remodel and grand re-opening.
The restaurant’s current design invokes the sea itself, with decorative wooden ceiling beams reminiscent of a boardwalk, and loose-strung lights falling through them like fish nets. Decorative hanging lamps throughout the room recall boat lights, while others are puffed and spiked to resemble blowfish or anemones. Aguanno credits Cynthia Harriman of Denville’s Eastern Design Group with the redo.
The fish market itself is a precursor to the foods that lie within the café, as diners often peruse the cold cases to see what looks good before ordering their meals, Aguanno says.
The unit’s current owner and designated buyer, Aguanno started working at the fish market while he was in the fourth grade, “doing miscellaneous things,” he says. He graduated college in 1987 and has been with the market and restaurant ever since. Both of his sisters also work in the restaurant: Amy McEate is a teacher who cooks for the café in the summer, while Chef Mary Aguanno designs the menu.
She keeps the fish entrees light: most are sautéed in white wine and butter to keep the flavor of the fish from being overpowered by sauces, he says. The full menu does not change much over the course of the year.
“Anything we have to showcase, we cook,” Aguanno says. Mary’s creativity is spent more on the side dishes. “Those we really tweak.”
Recent side offerings included mashed sweet potatoes with sweet ginger sauce (usually a side with salmon dishes), and mashed potatoes with bacon, topped with caramelized shallots. Mary Aguanno also uses orzo and couscous in her sides.
The most popular dishes at Codmother’s Café are those with salmon or scallops, Aguanno says.
Sea Scallop Savoy features scallops sautéed in a roasted garlic and red wine vinegar reduction, priced at $28. Shellfish Sauté includes lobster, shrimp, scallops, clams, mussels and squid, served either in marinara sauce, or sautéed scampi style with garlic and butter, at $28.
The Broiled Atlantic Salmon entrée is priced at $20, while the Broiled King Salmon entrée is priced at $32. Each includes cole slaw, a vegetable and a choice of starch: steak fries, rice, steamed potatoes, or linguini. Diners may substitute extra steamed vegetables, or for an additional $1.95, either onion rings or sweet potato fries.
For fried fish lovers, customers can choose two items from among a list for their Fried Combination entrée. The price of the dish is the combined price of the items: sea scallops, at $14; clams, at $13; crab cake, at $12; haddock, at $11; scrod, at $11; and shrimp, also at $11. The plate is paired with the same sides as above.
Recent specials started off with a Mussels Fra Diavolo appetizer, featuring Prince Edward Island mussels sautéed in homemade spicy marinara sauce, at $10. Special entrees included Haddock, broiled in a white wine sauce, served with roasted Yukon Gold potatoes and roasted corn, tossed with sautéed onions, red peppers and jalapeno peppers, priced at $13 for lunch and $26 for dinner.
Another, the Black Sea Bass, was broiled in a rosemary wine sauce and served over sautéed zucchini, yellow squash, onions, and Jersey tomatoes, at $15 for lunch and $30 for dinner. The Lobster Roll featured homemade lobster salad served on a buttered toasted roll, with lettuce and a side of sweet potato fries, at $15. And the Tuna Salad Wrap was homemade, served with lettuce and tomato and a side of onion rings or fries, at $14.
Soup offerings include Manhattan Clam Chowder and New England Clam Chowder; Bouillabaisse, a clear broth with fish, onions and celery; Shrimp Gumbo, a spicy, tomato-based soup with shrimp and okra; and Shrimp Bisque or Lobster Bisque, made with sherry cream. All are priced at $4.50 for a cup and $6.50 for a bowl, except for the Lobster Bisque, which is $6 for a cup and $11 for a bowl.
Chilled appetizers include Shrimp Cocktail, at $10; Jumbo Lump Crabmeat Cocktail, made with blue claw crabs, at $14; Shrimp Bruschetta, served with garlic toast, at $14; a Garden Salad, featuring mixed field greens, at $6; Littleneck Clams on the half shell, priced at $1.50 for one, $7 for six, and $13 for a dozen; and Oysters on the half shell, priced at $2.25 for one, $12 for six, and $22 for a dozen.
Warm apps include Mussels, served in a butter, wine and garlic sauce, at $10; Calamari, lightly fried and served with marinara, at $10; and Plate ‘O Bait, a fried sampler platter with flounder, shrimp, scallops, calamari and oysters, at $14.
Steamed Clams are also available; all are steamed in a seasoned butter wine broth and served with drawn butter. Ipswich Clams are $7 for a half pound, $13 for a pound, $19 for one-and-a-half pounds, and $24 for two pounds. Littleneck Clams are $7 for six, $13 for 12, $19 for 18, and $24 for 24.
The café was swamped on a recent Wednesday evening, with tables filling up almost as soon as they were vacated. The only issue Aguanno foresees is a continued challenge to attract and retain wait staff, which has been a common problem throughout the restaurant industry nationwide.
The market and restaurant are closed on Sunday and Monday. Market hours run from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. The restaurant is open from 11:30 a.m. until closing.