THIS JOURNEYMAN CHEF BRINGS “SOMETHING NEW” TO ITALIAN FARE AT TRE
BY JESSICA JONES GORMAN PHOTOS BY CHRIS LOUPOS
When Nick Freire was crafting the menu for Tre Restaurant in Freehold, he was definitely thinking outside of the box. “People imagine they’re going to get traditional chicken parm and instead get a pizza,” Freire noted in the process of describing what is perhaps his most coveted dish: the 12 inch diameter “Pollo Parmigiana” built out of thinly pounded organic chicken breast that’s floured, egged, breadcrumb battered, and lightly fried, then topped with sauce and cheese and baked on a pizza peel.
“We also cut it into six pieces, just like a pizza,” Freire said. “It’s our most talked about item because it’s just so different.”
It’s a word that succinctly defines Freire’s cooking.
Born and raised in Newark, he spent a considerable amount of time in restaurants, because his grandfather built them.
“He owned a construction company and built most of the restaurants in town,” he recalled. “I always say I was raised in a bar, because I would sit in the corner and wait for my grandfather, watching as all the waiters and cooks buzzed by.”
Referring to these employees as “rock stars,” Freire detailed an early fascination with the back of the house. When he was 16, he read Anthony Bourdain’s groundbreaking Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2000) and decided to pursue a career in the culinary industry. He took a job at Nonna’s Citi Cucina in Englishtown when he was 17 and still in high school, making desserts and working the fryers. His time there was also marked by attending the Culinary Education Center in Asbury Park, and he eventually worked his way up to sous chef.
“It was a great experience, but after three years I got bored,” Freire said. “So I started doing this motion picture catering gig with a friend from culinary school. We cooked for movie sets in Philly and New York. It was cool, fun and exciting setting up for a 5 a.m. casting call then prepping lunch and sometimes dinner. We were young, having fun, partying all night, and getting up early to do it all over again. It was an incredible two years, but tough and demanding.”
When friend and former colleague Dennis Tafuri contacted him about a new concept he was launching with Robert Kash and Joseph Mosco (founders of Great Restaurants NJ), Freire jumped at the chance. “I opened Stella Marina in Asbury as sous chef under Kenny Mansfield,” Freire said.
“It was one of the hottest restaurants on the Jersey Shore at the time. Asbury was still a little underdeveloped then, but here we were at this crazy busy restaurant.”
Freire worked there for three summers, eventually leaving the kitchen to pursue his own executive chef position. He was hired to head the kitchen at Terrazza in Perth Amboy, which blended both Caribbean and Cuban fare.
“I had done Italian and General American catering my whole life, so this was definitely a challenge,” he said. “My only prior experience with these types of cuisine was what I had learned from my wife’s family, which is Cuban and Columbian. I literally spent three weeks on You Tube learning…didn’t know what a plantain was a month before we opened [laughs], but I gathered the concepts fast and was given the keys and free range to do what I wanted. It was the right location and the right time, and we had a lot of success.”
After leading the kitchen at Terrazza for several years, Freire once again linked up with Tafuri, who in 2014 was formulating Tre, a new Italian dining concept in Freehold.
“The Great Restaurants Group fell upon this property that had a very modern industrial look to it a former laundromat with all of the old brick still intact and an authentic tin roof. They wanted to develop a casual restaurant…wanted to take all of the stuffiness out of good old traditional food: Get rid of the tablecloths and the waiters in button down shirts and serve craft beer instead of Chianti.”
That’s when Freire designed his chicken parm pizza and crispy calamari fritti. An entire menu was crafted to suit the conventional couple on a date or a table of little leaguers celebrating a shutout. “You can come here for good pizza and beer, or have a four course meal with a bottle of Sassicaia,” he said.
When home with his family, meals are a little simpler: “I eat Frosted Flakes with sliced bananas and toaster strudel because honestly, who feels like cooking when you’ve been doing it all night?” he smiled, adding that right now he’s focused on expanding the Tre brand at its new Brick location.
“It has been open for about two months now,” he said. “We’re extremely excited about bringing this menu to a whole new clientele.”
611 Park Avenue, Freehold / 732.751.4422
1048 Cedarbridge Avenue, Brick / 732.455.9470 / trepizzanj.com