THIS ELEGANT CEDAR GROVE EATERY HAS BEEN SERVING ITALIAN DELICACIES FOR THREE DECADES
BY JESSICA JONES GORMAN • PHOTOS BY ERIC COLEMAN & AMESSE PHOTOGRAPHY
When the temperatures dip and sweater weather sinks in, chef Louis Seger of LuNello rejoices. Reveling in the colorfully crisp produce of his favorite season, the veteran restaurateur fills his menu with hearty squashes, oven roasted root vegetables, and, of course, pumpkin. But for Seger, who defines his cooking style as traditional yet modern, every dish that features those earthy ingredients is delectably unique.
“I work with a farm in the Catskills which grows a beautifully sweet variety of pumpkin exclusively for my restaurant,” noted the chef, speaking of a yellow pumpkemon squash he serves from October through January. “The entire thing is edible skin and all and I serve it crisply roasted and stuffed with sausage, black truffle mushrooms, and four different types of cheese. I wait all year for this; it’s just that delicious.”
Speaking fervently about beets and brie, it’s clear to see that chef Seger has a passion for all things food. And at his upscale Cedar Grove restaurant, he’s been bringing that passion to New Jersey residents for more than three decades.
“LuNello was born in 1990 in a little storefront in Totowa,” he said. “The concept was built around the use of fresh farm produce long before ‘farm to table’ was in vogue. I’ve always been fascinated by agriculture and truly believe that in cooking, less is more. If you have a great piece of fish, why camouflage it? You want to taste the fish and compliment it with delicious vegetables. My style is old school food is best when it’s simple.”
Seger’s idea thrived and LuNello was successful in Totowa for 17 years. In 2007, the chef expanded his concept to Cedar Grove, moving into a freestanding building that featured more room for catering and private events.
“LuNello’s menu is locally famous because it’s full of very traditional, old school dishes,” Seger said, listing tripe, sweet breads, frog legs, and quail among some of his most requested entrees.
“Everything is wild, free range, and organic nothing farm raised. Fish is flown in daily from the Mediterranean and Hawaii. I think it’s that freshness and attention to quality that really makes a dish important.”
Seger should know. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, he apprenticed and then worked as a saucier at the Rainbow Room in Manhattan before bouncing around at least a dozen of New York City’s most famous kitchens.
“I learned so many different techniques from a number of different gold medal chefs,” he said.
But Seger’s initial introduction to the culinary world happened in his grandfather’s butcher shop.
“We lived in a small apartment in Clifton’s Botony Village. My grandfather had a butcher shop on the first floor, and I can remember going downstairs to watch the deliveries come in.”
He took a job at a Perkins Pancake House in high school and flipped pancakes at the young age of 14. He also worked as a dishwasher and busboy before enrolling in culinary school.
“It was my calling,” he noted. “I never wanted to do anything else.”
He came to New Jersey to work at Roberto’s in Clifton in 1985. Five years later he branched out and opened LuNello. Successfully serving classic but innovative Italian dishes for decades, first at his Totowa location and then in Cedar Grove, the chef/owner recently revamped his restaurant to create a completely new ambiance.
“Last year we decided to make a change and completely update our space. We made a change to lighter colors gray, silver, and gold and it completely changed the whole look of the restaurant. We kept all of the beautiful textured woodwork in the bar, but the carpets and colors are new, and we’re really happy with the outcome.”
All of the staple menu items remain burrata with arugula, pignoli nuts, and sweet and tangy balsamic glaze; twisted pasta with crispy pancetta and fresh Jersey tomatoes; lasagna with layers of béchamel and hearty Bolognese; and confit style duck with an orange marmalade.
All desserts and drinks are given a seasonal slant.
“Our white chocolate bread pudding is very big this time of year, and our bartenders do a great job with putting out a variety of seasonal drinks to complement our food. Apple cider, cinnamon, and pumpkin are big ingredients on all parts of our menu right now.”
Heartier braised meats and risottos are also predominant for fall and winter, allowing the chef to experiment with some of his favorite dishes.
“I love working with short ribs and lamb shanks,” he concluded. “I make a wonderful veal valdostana with wild mushroom polenta and during the holiday season we serve a lot of stone crabs. Fall and winter are probably my favorite seasons for food. I put all of my own personal favorites on the menu, but of course I always cater to my customers’ wishes as well. at attention to detail is what has made LuNello a success.”
182 Stevens Avenue / 973.837.1660 / lunello.com