Restaurant Review: New Rochelle's Maria Restaurant
Brothers Giovanni and Peter Cucullo hit the sweet spot between peasant and polished at this New Rochelle charmer.
Grilled New Zealand lamb chops with fingerling potatoes, salsa verde, and shishito peppers
photos by ken gabrielsen
Maria is an amalgam: Think the Bronx’s Arthur Avenue meets the West Village. Rustic for the most part but refined in others. The diverse elements blend into an appealing whole.
The space sets the tone. Modern chandeliers offset exposed century-old bleached brick walls. The bright-blue banquette is capped with family heirlooms and photographs. A pitch-black industrial air-conditioning system is suspended from an original braced wooden ceiling.
The fake flowers are superfluous, the mirrors a key contributor. There is a dining alcove just past the bar that is an enticing space for larger groups or special occasions.
Sibling partners Peter, of Fratelli Pizza, and Giovanni, who operates Pop’s Espresso Bar, both a few doors down from the restaurant, pay homage to their mother, Maria. Her kitchen tools, tableware, and mementos are placed lovingly about the dining room and bar as a tribute to her Southern Italian culinary spirit.
These mementos help the brothers remember their roots, although liberties are taken, as evidenced by the diverse menu (especially the starters), to create a yin-yang, classic-modern balance that comes across in a kind of culinary sparring match.
Broiled oysters are matched up with “Real Deal” baked clams: The first is light, fresh, and refined, the second ruddy and robust: Littleneck shells are mounded with a chunky mixture of chopped clams, fresh breadcrumbs, and a mirepoix of minced carrots, celery and onion, all served in a tiny sauté pan. Mild ahi tuna tartare, combining fresh tuna, cucumbers, and avocado, shares the table with spicy, old school shrimp diavolata. Whipped eggplant with garlic naan is excellent opposite finocchio al forno, described by our waiter as “mac and cheese without the mac.”
The kale Caesar tag teams with the cauliflower-kale fritters, served with a Vietnamese-inspired nuoc cham. Also in the mix is Maria’s Big Salad, an enormous, attractive palette of pickled, blanched, and raw vegetables that is knocked down by its uninspired dressing. The charred octopus, served on a bed of soft polenta with salsa verde and a sprinkle of pimentón, has no challengers, easily the best of the starters.
The lunch menu pits a meatball parm hero (Mom’s meatballs are offered as a stand-alone small plate or in the Sunday sauce entrée and should not be missed) against excellent fish tacos.
Pastas, risottos, and other dinner mains are more traditional in nature, staying within Maria’s culinary realm. Lobster risotto is well executed, garnished with a shelled tail, fennel, and lemon. Trofie is an attractive, thinly rolled shape, sauced with roasted eggplant, tomato, and basil, finished with diced, smoked mozzarella. Linguine ai funghi, with wild mushrooms, anchovies, garlic, and chili crumbs, was the winner of those we sampled.
The bone-in chicken scarpariello is unique, a clever play on the original. A half rotisserie chicken on the bone and slices of pork belly in place of the traditional sausage are served on a mound of fingerling potatoes and topped with pickled peppers. This version may not please the purist, but was tender and tasty nonetheless.
Grilled New Zealand baby lamb chops are also accompanied by fingerling potatoes with the added surprise of selectively spicy shishito peppers and salsa verde.
The pork chop is also accompanied by fingerlings (do we see a trend here?) and is prepared butterflied. This may be the reason why it arrived a tad dry.
The dessert offerings are not the kitchen’s strong point, limited to versions of gelato and Pop’s Dannoli — the doughnut filled with cannoli cream that put Chef Gio’s Pop’s Espresso Bar on the map. Definitely get one of these rich pastries for the table to share.
The resident mixologist has developed an attractive, unique cocktail menu with offerings like “Yo Maria,” “The Huguenot,” and “Taki-Taki-Taki.” There is an interesting variety of microbrews and craft beers. The wine list is compact and approachable. All but the highest end bottles are offered by the glass so you can ask for a sip before you decide.
Service is extremely professional even during the busiest times. The attentive waitstaff knows the menu and focuses on the customer experience. There is a sense of pride and professionalism that really radiates, a rarity in today’s dining scene.
Maria is a restaurant that cares about its food, service, space, and legacy. It is comfortable and comforting, as well as cutting-edge and current. Mom would be proud of what her sons have accomplished.
11 Huguenot St, New Rochelle
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P.J. Correale is a seasoned veteran with more than four decades in the restaurant industry as an owner and chef.