On a small stretch of Huguenot Street, Giovanni and Peter Cucullo have a trio of restaurants, each a few doors from the others. The latest is Maria (named for the brothers’ mom), a Modern Italian eatery that opened last September. The menu offerings are a hybrid of traditional Italian-American cookery, like that of the restaurant’s eponym, and more contemporary dishes, which may utilize ingredients typically found in other cuisines.
“Historically, New Rochelle has been a traditional food community,” says Giovanni, “where the dining-out public like what they like. That diner is the base at Fratelli [the 18-year-old pizza-and-pasta place run by brother Peter at 9 Huguenot], and we wanted to appeal to them at Maria.”
But Giovanni increasingly sees another type of diner, the kind who frequents Pop’s Espresso Bar (his eclectic breakfast-and-lunch café at 7B Huguenot, which opened in 2014) and now Maria. “Starting six to 10 years ago, I noticed a changing demographic in the city, with diners who are more discerning and food-savvy. They watch Food Network and take pictures of their food for Instagram. They want creative dishes and not the same-old, same-old.” He attributes the appearance of the savvy diner to the slow but steady signs of gentrification in New Rochelle, noting the $4 billion development plan, including two hotels.
At Maria, Giovanni runs the day-to-day operations and leads the kitchen, the success of which he attributes to his mother, as he has no formal culinary training. “I was always at her knee, watching her cook,” the Yonkers resident says of his childhood in the Norwood section of the Bronx. “She always had a pot of water on the stove, ready to go, for a large group of family and friends. Her stuffed eggplant was famous.”
Bronx-style Italian food is represented on the menu in dishes such as meaty baked clams, shrimp diavolata, cavatelli with broccoli rabe, and maccheroni in Sunday sauce, complete with meats, bones, and fat. “I think this type of food has earned such a good reputation because the people making it were mostly Southern Italians — Calabrese, like my family, and Sicilians, etcetera — who came from poor, downtrodden situations,” says Giovanni, whose first job was at his father’s Five Brothers Pizzeria in the Bronx. “A culture that struggles has to be resourceful and creative, and this drive leads to a strong food culture.”
Maria’s modern side is expressed with plates of gnocchi in oxtail ragù, octopus with charred capers and pickled veggies, seared scallops in porcini agrodolce, and braised beef shank in ginger and soy.
“In the end,” explains Giovanni, “no matter how many signs point to a changing community, there’s still plenty of the old guard here. You have to strike a balance and remember that you can’t be everything to everyone.”
11 Huguenot St, New Rochelle