Anthony Bucco could write a history of dining in New Jersey, including thorough biographies and family trees of chefs who have made a difference in the way we eat in the Garden State.
Instead, he’s working in a construction zone at 54 East Ridgewood Avenue in Ridgewood, building the restaurant that will be called Felina and its affiliated event space.
The chef, who recently left Crystal Springs Resort in Sussex County and its marquee restaurant Latour, is doing his next project his way, in partnership with Jeanne and Frank Cretella, the couple who entrusted to him the re-make of the then-dormant Ryland Inn in Whitehouse Station.
He’s bringing with him his second-in-command at Latour (and, before that, at Ryland), Martyna Krowicka, who will leave Latour April 1 to help him open and operate the kitchen at Felina.
Krowicka, her mentor says, will be chef de cuisine at Felina, where the space that was home to Fish will be turned into a room for events, and the area behind that will become the personal, more intimate neighborhood restaurant that Bucco has been dreaming of for some time now.
In the course of a 90-minute conversation, it’s clear where Bucco’s heart is. Yes, he’s a ground-breaking, supremely talented and skilled chef who knows the best food comes from the best ingredients locally sourced and handled with respect. But nearly every sentence he speaks turns into a paean to the people he has worked with. Even as he offers details of Felina’s cuisine, which will lean Italian, as translated by Garden State produce and products and foraged wild things, he keeps coming back to the chefs he’s worked with and actively mentored.
David Viana, he says, “so deserved” his recent James Beard Award nomination as Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic. Viana, now chef-partner at Heirloom Kitchen in Old Bridge, worked for Bucco at Uproot, where “his skills, his vision, his mastery” showed just how far he could go.
Randy Forrester, the chef who with his wife, Ally Forrester, was nominated by Beard for Osteria Radici in Allentown in the Best New Restaurant category, also worked for Bucco. “Randy is so intelligent, one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and extremely skilled and talented,” Bucco says.
He goes on. Martyna Krowicka isn’t just skilled, talented and intelligent, “she’s one of the hardest working chefs I’ve ever seen in a kitchen.” Much like Viana, he says, “who is such a hard worker.”
“These young men and women who came up through my kitchens mean so much to me,” Bucco says. “I take pride in teaching them how to evolve.”
He talks about the admiration and respect he has for James and Nancy Laird, who have kept Restaurant Serenade in Chatham, both fresh and popular for more than two decades. Then he praises what Ehren and Nadine Ryan have done with the innovative Common Lot in Millburn since its birth not even two years ago, before he gets back to Felina.
“I want to connect with people,” Bucco says. “I’ve been attached to destination restaurants for years now. [Felina] gives me the opportunity to be in a very vibrant town, a place with a very nice vibe, and do a neighborhood type of restaurant. A place where people could come in for a drink one night, then a couple nights later, come back for a whole meal.
“What Ehren is doing at Common Lot? That feel? That’s the look and feel I’m thinking of [for Felina]. What David is doing at Heirloom, that energy and warmth? I see that, too.
“New Jersey’s amazing produce, its farmers, the places I go foraging—that’s where I’m getting my inspiration. We’ll be doing food that’s local, that gives respect to my Italian heritage. I think about Common Lot and Heirloom, but it will be my play on a lot of things. OK, if Heirloom and Viaggo (Robbie Felice’s restaurant in Wayne) and Common Lot had a baby, that’d be what I’m talking about [with Felina].”
Smaller is what Bucco is talking about, too. He’s bothered by the fact that, before he left Crystal Springs, there was a new person working as a dishwasher in the Latour kitchen and he didn’t know the gentleman’s name. Fact is, he was supervising more than two dozen managers alone as the No. 1 food and beverage person at the resort.
“What makes me happy is being connected to a kitchen and to a team,” Bucco says. “I love this market in Ridgewood; I love this state.”
He pauses, for a second. “Martyna joining me is such a big deal—she is growing like no one I’ve seen.”
He talks about Krowicka’s accomplishments and how he sees her influencing Felina—which will seat about 70—and its menu. His excitement is palpable, as he ekes out details of the look of the place (“there will be an industrial feel, with garage door openings. And there will be an amazing beverage program, too.” He then praises Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen and its owner, Chris Cannon, who is an inspiration to Bucco as well.
We’ll have to wait some months before we see Bucco’s vision in operation—“Realistically, we’re looking at opening June 15,” says Bucco—but we’ll keep you up to date here at Table Hopping; Felina’s website, felinarestaurant.com, might be up and running by the time you read this.
Meanwhile, Bucco is planning collaborations this spring with those he’s mentored. So stay tuned; Anthony Bucco always has something delicious cooking.
In other news:
* David Burke is returning to the Shore in a partnership with the Stavola family. At the Driftwood Cabana Club on Ocean Avenue in Sea Bright, in the space currently housing Ama, the New Jersey native will launch Drifthouse Restaurant by David Burke Bar and Grill. The kitchen team will be led by Robert Burke, his brother. Driftwood is a private beach club, but the restaurant is open to the public. The Burke-Stavola team plan a March opening for Drifthouse.
* Meanwhile, in the Shore borough just north of Sea Bright, the liquor license for Windansea, at 56 Shrewsbury Avenue in Highlands, has been transferred to Smoke ‘N’ Mirrors. Windansea, long on the market, is a sprawling space a short hop from Sandy Hook. We hear the new owners are looking at turning the place into a sports bar. We’ll keep you posted.Click here to leave a comment