Food From the Heart of Galicia

They come from a corner of Europe the ancient Romans called Finisterra: “the end of the earth.” Sitting atop Portugal on the northwest extreme of the Iberian Peninsula with a coastline that is oceanic in the north and Mediterranean in the southwest, Galicia is as much part of the sea as it is plains, hills and mountains.

But Galicia was not the end of the earth. In fact, its coastline was just the beginning of a new road to new places for countless of its native sons and daughters over the centuries. Despite—or perhaps due to—the incredible green, wet fertility of its lands and the marvelous seafood the people draw from its coastline, Galicia lagged far behind other parts of Spain in the kind of technologies and opportunities that could support a growing young population.

So today you will find Galicians in every corner of the world, including our own. And fortunately for us, many of them keep their culinary traditions alive, not just for themselves but for all of us, in the form of Spanish restaurants that serve food from a variety of regions but also highlight the delights of their own province.

Fruit slices are ready for Sangria, at Sangria 71 in Williston Park.

Fruit slices are ready for Sangria, at Sangria 71 in Williston Park.

Which is why, when you visit Sangria 71, either in Williston Park or the new restaurant in Commack, you should try the excellent paella (made of rice and seafood and/or meats that originate on the other side of Spain in Valencia) or any of the other dishes from different regions. But before you do that, have a go at the caldo gallego (Galician broth), try empanadas, chorizo steeped in wine, the bacalao a la gallega (Galician salt cod) and definitely the grilled octopus.

Brothers José and Rosendo Fernández came to the United States with their family when they were just five years old. (They were born 10 months apart.) Their father, Rosendo Sr., was already here, cooking at a Spanish restaurant, Rincón de España near Washington Square Park, since 1966. He returned to Spain to get married and brought the family to join him in 1976. They lived above the restaurant, where he worked for a remarkable 36 years.

The brothers remember food as central to family life.

“My mom was always cooking,” says José Fernández, now the marketing and commercial guy in the business. “But when my dad had a day off, he wouldn’t cook. We wanted the restaurant food, but he didn’t. He wanted my mom’s home cooking.”

That meant a lot of caldo gallego.

“I’d see my mom make a big pot of it; it would last all week and it was full of collards and white beans and she would say it would make us stronger and healthier.”

Their parents also kept the Galician tradition of sitting down together for meals.

Brothers Rosendo (l) and Jose Fernandez, owners of Sangria 71.

Brothers Rosendo, left, and Jose Fernandez, owners of Sangria 71.

“My dad worked a lot,” says Rosendo, the brother who orchestrates the food for the restaurants. “He would leave at 8 or 9 in the morning and come back when we were asleep. So the days he was home were a big deal.”

The message of food and family weren’t lost on the brothers. Which is why I learn their story not just from them but from a delightful mosh pit of wives and mothers and sisters and children, all speaking at once—and not always to me—in a jumble of English, Spanish and the provincial dialect, Gallego, during a baby shower at the Commack restaurant.

“We talk loud, but we don’t fight,” José’s daughter, Victoria, assures me, in the midst of an excited discussion of the merits of her grandmothers’ best dishes. Victoria’s brother, Joey, is there, worrying about whether he will be called in to wait tables after the shower due to a big rush in the new place. “I didn’t bring the right clothes,” he says. Her mother, José’s wife, María José, is praising her mother-in-law Sofía’s callos, a tripe dish. Sofía is there, modestly—or deftly—not sharing her recipe. María José’s mother, Carmen, details the annual chorizo-making, three rounds of 250 pounds of sausage, which she smokes in her fireplace. From the far end of the bar, more family members wave at and chase younger children. This is a tight tribe, united by country, tradition, family and work.

“On days when there was no school, I sent the boys to work with their father,” Sofía Fernández, the matriarch says. “They would help him prep the food: peeling shrimp, chopping. Rosendo stayed in the food business, and José went into logistics, but then he came back.”

A few years ago José began to work street fairs, like the San Gennaro festival, selling paella and empanadas. He did not, of course, do it alone.

Octopus is featured in many of Sangria 71’s tapas menu.

Octopus is featured in many of Sangria 71’s tapas menu.

“I was in college at Pace,” says daughter, Victoria. “We would do them in the city, so I would go after class. We would do paella with seafood and chorizo and chicken empanadas. Oh my God, everybody loved it. And it’s always family working, which makes it fun. Even though it’s stressful and busy, at the end of the day you kick up your feet together.”

That led to José and Rosendo teaming up to open the first Sangria 71 in Williston Park two years ago. “It was all hands on deck,” says José. “The whole family helped.”

Today with one established restaurant and a second that looks ready to match the success of the first, the brothers are able to keep the family close and share their country’s traditions. They may have started their own families in New York, but with frequent visits to Spain and the Fernández tribe, Galician roots nourish everything they do.

Sangria concotions at Sangria 71 in Williston Park include (l-r) De Cayman, San Mojo, Classic Red and Classic White.

Sangria concotions at Sangria 71 in Williston Park include (l-r) De Cayman, San Mojo, Classic Red and Classic White.

And one tradition also stays the same. While 90 percent of the dishes at Sangria 71 are dishes Spaniards eat at home, the brothers echo their dad’s sentiments and say on their days off, they want their wives’ home-cooking.

“Our goal is that our kids will continue,” says José. “That they will carry these traditions on.”

Sangria 71
71 Hillside Avenue, Williston Park; 516.246.9778
1095 Jericho Turnpike, Commack; 631.670.7606