Joseph Cuccia was six and his sister, Jenna, eight, when their parents took them to Disney World. It tells you something that what Joseph remembers about that every-kid’s-dream trip “was what I ate. At one meal, I wanted crab cocktail, but it was sold out. I was so disappointed, they made me a lobster cocktail instead. It was the best thing I’d ever tasted.”
It’s a safe bet you will fondly remember what you eat at 17 Summer, the siblings’ 3-year-old BYO in their hometown of Lodi. Joseph, 30, is the chef; Jenna, 32, the manager.
The menu changes every six weeks, but side dishes, sauces and accompaniments can change daily, “depending on what’s in the market and what our forager brings in,” Joseph says. An appetizer always worth asking about is Odds and Ends, Joseph’s daily wizardry with offal. On one of my visits, it was headcheese, a classic terrine made of meat and broth from a pig’s head. Forget how that sounds. Sliced, battered and fried, it was creamy, crunchy, flavorful and delightfully decadent. Last fall, lamb meatballs were rich and insightfully paired with marinated eggplant and a yogurt gremolata.
An excellent appetizer of poached Spanish octopus was crisped on the grill and brightened with lemon aioli. Chilled cucumber broth dotted with tarragon olive oil cradled Alaskan king crab meat, creating a happy cross between gazpacho and sashimi.
All eight of the siblings’ great-grandparents were Sicilian. “We’re Sicilian on all sides, and passionate eaters,” says Jenna. “Our parents were both fabulous cooks.” Joseph and Jenna began working in restaurants as teenagers. Joseph earned a culinary degree from Hudson County Community College and cooked in New York and New Jersey restaurants. Jenna worked in magazine ad sales for awhile before the siblings teamed up to cook for street fairs and markets. In 2012, they opened a catering business at 17 Summer Street, adding the restaurant in 2015.
Given the Cuccias’ ancestry, it makes sense that Joseph’s pastas are robust and rewarding. One I’ve never seen before they call doppio. A piece of dough is folded and pinched to make two pockets. One side is filled with lemon ricotta, the other with roasted, seasoned bison marrow—an Italian yin/yang. It was served in a butter and parsley sauce with toasted breadcrumbs and was delicious. Joseph’s focaccia and daily bread special are worth the $8 charge.
The restaurant, with its narrow, open kitchen, is small. There are just 22 seats. Reservations are recommended, especially for Joseph’s Wednesday night, five-course, $75 tasting, different each week. The doppio was served the night I attended. That menu began with fresh-baked, still-hot challah rolls with lavender sea-salt butter. It included marvelous duck breast, at once fruity and foresty, with nasturtium leaves and strawberries macerated with a jelly made from spruce-needle tips. Plush monkfish topped with melted Mangalitsa pork lardo and locally foraged mushrooms captured autumn in each bite.
“Our fish is wild caught, and we don’t serve overfished, endangered species such as Chilean sea bass,” says Jenna. “Our goal is to spotlight lesser-known species, both to conserve the marine ecosystem and to introduce diners to a healthier way of consuming fish.”
In most cases, Joseph cooks with a maturity beyond his years, but not always. Country-fried boneless chicken thighs were tough as hardtack, and thin-sliced short ribs were over-marinated in red wine vinegar for an unpleasant pucker.
Still, Joseph’s desserts were gratifying, from a tangy sorrel-lemon granité to a dense, delicious Belgian chocolate cake, improved with a tease of flowery lavender syrup.Click here to leave a comment
Cuisine Type:European - Modern
Price Details:Bread and focaccia, $8; appetizers, $8-$16; entrées, $32-$46; desserts, $8-$10
Ambience:Stylishly minimalist, often loud
Service:Informed, eager to help