Upon walking into Lucco Cucina + Bar, your eyes are immediately drawn above to its well-lit cathedral ceilings. The space is rivaled only by its expansive menu, combined with the luxury of a full-service bar which sits proudly in the restaurant’s center. Many new restaurants succeed on this front, but leave something to be desired beyond the surface. At Lucco, the food and experience both meet a high standard.
Owner Jon Jorge is no newcomer to the restaurant industry. At just 25 years old, he already has well over 10 years of experience under his belt. Starting in the back of house at his uncle’s restaurant during his adolescence, it wasn’t long before he moved onto service and bartending, and finally, working as a manager. After majoring in Hospitality Management at Fairleigh Dickinson, there was only one role left for Jorge to fill: owner.
Much like his own career, Jorge had to build Lucco from the ground up. The plot of land lies a stone’s throw from Route 10 in Florham Park, and the space he has created there could not be more perfect.
Inside, warm exposed brick covers both the wall at the front and back of the restaurant. A sleek and spacious dining room is interrupted by Lucco’s 24-seat bar that is perfectly set in the heart of the building. Guests can get a glimpse into the busy kitchen which is gated by an open doorway that encourages diner curiosity. Guests can truly admire the pizza counter, which is set in plain sight just feet from the bar. Here, pizza and house-made focaccia are prepared for service.
Brooklyn-born Anthony Russo is the chef behind Lucco. Growing up Italian-American, family and food were at the center of his life. So, it is to no surprise what type of fare he is creating here in New Jersey. As a child, his family’s weekly feasts on Sunday were more than just a time to gather—for Russo, it was a time for inspiration. He took the fun he had preparing Sunday dinner, and worked to turn it into a career when he enrolled in The Culinary Institute of America. From there, he worked in several restaurants, notably working under chefs such as David Burke and Sam Hazen. Eventually, he teamed up with Jorge to create Lucco.
Food is where Lucco proved itself to me as a reputable restaurant in Northern New Jersey. With tastes reminiscent of grandma’s house, it was hard not to fall in love with many of the dishes—many of which transported me back in time to my childhood.
Take the meatball appetizer, for example, a dish I would normally glaze right over. How could someone top my family’s meatballs? It was insisted as a must-try, so I followed suit. Tender, flavorful meatballs made of beef, pork, and veal; just like grandma’s. They were larger in size than what I am accustomed to, but came as a pleasant surprise to both the eyes and the palate.
The lasagna followed a similar pattern as the meatballs. Arriving in a circular pot, the what-felt-like 10-pound lasagna was an absolute must-have. “It is a portion for one,” Jorge joked to me, but something in my mind tells me he was not entirely kidding when he said it. Again, eating this brought me back to my childhood. A hot, meat-filled lasagna laden with seasoned ricotta is encapsulated under a thick coat of crispy and golden-brown crust. It is unapologetic. The beauty in a dish like this lies in the way it makes you feel rather than how it looks. And that feeling is one of comfort and familiarity.
Similarly, Russo’s cavatelli with short rib ragu also struck a chord. Rich, succulent short rib paired with ricotta cheese and celestial pasta left me yearning for more. Each bite preceded immediately going in for a second, third, fourth and so on. The cavatelli themselves were made with ricotta cheese—perhaps one of my favorite types of pasta dough. If you are lucky, dishes like this are familiar to you, but if you are like me, a dish like this serves as a true treat.
It’s not just cloning Sunday dinner that Lucco does well; they also leave room for innovation. The baked clams in Calabrian chili butter were a unique take on a very familiar dish. The stuffed-then-baked clams themselves scream “New York City steakhouse” at you, but the extra touch of heat provided, and the charred lemon accompaniment, brings you back to a reality displaying why this dish is in a league of its own.
Speaking of steakhouses, it’s not just pasta and Italian-American staples that are under Chef Russo’s belt. “We wanted to show people that we could do more than just pizza and pasta, so we threw a steak on the menu,” Jorge told me. The 20-ounce bone-in ribeye steak was a pleasant surprise. Deep, flame-induced char hides a perfect medium-rare interior. A porcini dry rub that is truly divine, crispy potatoes and a balsamic reduction seal the deal on why steaks and chops at Lucco are not to be scoffed at.
Some newer dishes that were out of the ordinary for a typical “NJ Italian” spot showed up to the party as well. Potato gnocchi with pork sausage, tomato, shitake mushrooms and truffle cream demonstrated complexity, while not being over-the-top.
Likewise, the charred octopus with tomatoes, kalamata olives and hummus showed a completely different side of Lucco. Buried behind dishes of warmth and comfort was this wonderfully bright and fresh octopus—a must order for me whenever it is on a menu.
Above all, Lucco is approachable. Jon Jorge and Anthony Russo work in tandem to make Lucco somewhere that feels comfortable, and I sure felt it. Whether it is the populous menu that caters to several different styles, the relaxed atmosphere, or the polished interior, you are guaranteed one thing at Lucco: a taste of home.
Photography by Peter Bonacci