Alex Piñeiro was in the middle of law school when he realized an office job wasn’t for him. Having grown up around his father’s restaurant in Ridgefield, it turned out, was not something he could shrug off. After taking a semester off at law school in 2015, he applied to culinary school.
In 2017, Chef Piñeiro graduated from the International Culinary Center. After working at numerous Manhattan restaurants, he experienced (thanks to the pandemic) something he’d never had before: a break. His uninterrupted free time awarded him the opportunity to explore opening his own place.
He opened his tapas restaurant, Bodegón, in Cliffside Park last April. The restaurant operated until summer, when lack of staff (a widespread problem) forced him to shut down. He finally reopened after Labor Day, with a more Spanish-inspired menu.
When Piñeiro was a kid, his family visited Spain for a month just before school started. Last summer, when Bodegón was closed, he made a spur-of-the-moment decision to visit Galicia, in northwest Spain, to revel in its traditional tapas and sociable atmosphere.
“My favorite part about Spain is sitting in a plaza with friends and getting a bunch of plates,” he says. “That’s the Spanish experience I want to bring to the U.S.”
How did you get involved with the culinary world?
Alex Piñeiro: My dad owned a restaurant in West New York until he passed away, and I kind of grew up in that world. I went to NYU and then law school at Pace, and when I was in the middle of law school I started watching The Mind of the Chef. I really resonated with what they said about not wanting to be in an office all day. I signed up for culinary school and fell in love with cooking and the kitchen. I started working at restaurants and climbing the ladder. Most recently I was a sous chef on the Lower East Side.
Did the pandemic accelerate your decision to open your own place?
It definitely did. I always wanted to and was always thinking about it. Opening a restaurant isn’t something you learn when you’re cooking, but the pandemic allowed me to take a couple of months to do research and talk to people and get all my ducks in a line to really understand that part of it.
What made you come back to New Jersey?
My mom lives in Cliffside Park, and over the years I’ve spent a lot of time around that area. I’ve watched Cliffside Park revitalize their downtown, and there was a New York Times article about how it’s one of the up-and-coming neighborhoods in New Jersey. I felt like I could provide something new to the place I grew up around, and bring some great New York City cooking to the area.
What made you decide to go with tapas?
Tapas are the way I prefer to eat when I go out. I like to try a bunch of little bites with friends, and have it be very communal. That way you prolong the evening without having to think, ‘Alright, we’re gonna get an app, an entree, and then it’s over.’ You can come for a couple of snacks and drinks and have a long night out. People have readily attached themselves to this, and it’s been great.
When did you open Bodegón?
We opened in April as a soft opening to see what the New Jersey market wanted. It was a six-week period of gathering information and getting the restaurant to where it is today. In August, we were really short-staffed, and it caused us to shut down for a little bit, which was sad but also serendipitous. We got to refocus. I traveled to Spain for some inspiration, and we reopened just after Labor Day.
What did you learn in Spain?
I wanted to make sure my food wasn’t too far off from what I was seeing in Galicia. For instance, every tapas restaurant I went to had meatballs, so when I came back I was obsessed with the meatballs, and we put one on the menu. I was fortunate to experience places in Galicia I’d never been to before, which was the goal of my trip. Spain produces a lot of high-quality food in a very approachable format, which is something I love to do.
How often do you go to Spain?
I go every year. Growing up, all of us got one month in Spain, and August was my family’s month. When sports started in high school, it got kind of choppy, but once I was in college I tried to resume that tradition and go at least once a year. Luckily, my girlfriend is a great traveler and obsessed with food as well. I think this recent trip was the first year where I realized from now on, when I go to Spain, I want to go to places I’ve never been.
What’s new at Bodegón since reopening?
We finally have a solid staff, which is great! We did a menu redesign to make it a little more straightforward, and added more small plates. Events will be something we do more of. I like doing events, because it lets me do something different from the day-in, day-out [routine].
On your tapas menu, what are some of your favorite items?
The croqueta, which is a culmination of many croquetas I’ve made over the years. It’s a blend of three hams: Taylor ham, York ham and Serrano ham. The salad is also one of my favorites. It’s a constant in my life: Spanish style with lettuce, onion and a good red wine vinaigrette. Every time I’m eating it, it brings me back to Spain, as simple as it is.
What are you looking forward to?
I’m looking forward to finding our stride and everyone getting into the groove. Also looking forward to the holidays, as we are booking a bunch of holiday parties, and I’m excited to see all the people that celebrate with us. I just want to keep growing the community and really become a neighborhood restaurant.