THIS HIP ROMAN-GLOBAL CONCEPT RESTAURANT IS SHATTERING THE TRADITIONAL ITALIAN MOLD, SERVING CREATIVE SPINS ON TIMEHONORED CLASSICS IN COOL, CONTEMPORARY DIGS
BY AMANDA McCOY PHOTOS BY ALEX BARRETO
Inside La Lupa, an intimate 35-seat eatery along a buzzy stretch of route 33, patrons will find all the hallmarks of authentic Roman dining: hand mixed pastas, bubbling wood-fired pizzas, parmigiano reggiano imported from Italy. But this is far from a traditional Italian haunt. An open concept kitchen reveals chefs searing dry-aged Kansas City strips over Japanese binchotan, and sprinkling fiery Peruvian peppers atop locally caught crudo. Poured concrete and dark wood replace frescoes and white tablecloths, and the soundtrack never features Frank Sinatra. “We wanted to do things our way,” noted Michael Ceciarelli, who launched La Lupa last spring alongside his older brother, Giorgio Ceciarelli, and longtime friend Dan Fishman. “This is not your typical old-fashioned Italian restaurant. We wanted to bring a fresh NYC vibe to New Jersey.”
La Lupa (“she wolf ” in Italian) will celebrate its one-year anniversary in March, but the idea began to simmer long before it opened its doors in Manalapan. The owners, who grew up a short two miles from each other, began their restaurant careers as pre-teens. Fishman and Michael Ceciarelli eventually elevated to managerial roles, while Giorgio Ceciarelli followed in his Rome-born father’s footsteps and became a chef. All three whetted their skills in Giorgio Sr.’s Roman-style eatery, Solo Trattoria in Freehold. “We all worked there as kids,” noted the younger Ceciarelli. “So much of what we learned took place behind those doors.”
The younger Giorgio’s hunger for the kitchen took him beyond the borders of the Garden State. He embarked on several trips to his father’s native Italy, eating his way through the country’s various regions and falling in love with the flavors, creativity, and soul of Italian fare. He also picked up experience during a four-year post at Pasquale Jones in SoHo, whipping up wood-fired pies and sun choke tortellini for big-name diners like Jay-Z and Michael Jordan. The atmosphere, he recalled, was intoxicating. “The vibes were just incredible,” he said. “The kitchen was in the middle of the room, so everyone could see the chefs work their magic, and we played whatever music we felt like listening to that day. It was so hip, unlike anything I’ve seen in New Jersey.”
When the pandemic prompted the young chef to return to his home state, he reunited with his brother and childhood friend to finally launch their own concept. They didn’t have a robust budget, but with decades of restaurant experience between the three of them, they had vision. “We knew what we could do with Giorgio’s food,” said Fishman. “We knew we had the skills, we just didn’t have a lot of capital.”
When Giorgio Sr. stumbled upon a small, vacant space with an authentic pizza oven, he called his sons to tell them their search was over.
The new owners immediately employed a top-to-bottom design renovation to bring a taste of Manhattan moxie to Manalapan. They painted the windows jet black to evoke the atmosphere of an underground supper club in the West Village. For the interiors, they enlisted the talents of Dean Bruno, designer, and proprietor of the Reclaimed Firm. The kitchen is fully open, the red top of the pizza oven is visible from every seat in the house. Vintage chandeliers hang above dark wooden tables, and a mismatched assortment of throw pillows lines long dining benches. Sinatra-style jazz is replaced by a mix of old-school hip-hop, soul, and classic funk from the ‘90s and early aughts. As the night soldiers on, the lights get dimmer as the music roars louder, serenading diners with the familiar beats of throwback hip-hop.
The owners’ prior restaurant experience taught them the importance of hiring a stellar team, describing La Lupa’s chef de cuisine Kenny Vargas and general manager Cole Whitehead as integral to the menu and service.
The menu, changing frequently to celebrate what’s in season, spans Neapolitan pizzas, scratch-made pastas, locally caught seafood, and dry-aged steaks along with a platter of antipasti apps and sides. When Giorgio Ceciarelli originally sat down to outline the menu, he was adamant about strictly sourcing top-end ingredients. To ensure he was serving only the best of the best, he sourced dozens of ingredients from every pocket of the globe for an epic taste test.
“We tried several cheeses and tomatoes from Italy, artichokes from Greece, Spain, and California, and probably nine different prosciuttos. We lined them all up and picked the best.
We also source from incredible local purveyors, like Point Pleasant fishermen and Two Rivers Mushrooms.”
While the chef’s cooking style is rooted in age-old Roman tenets (all pastas are made from scratch each morning from imported Italian flour, a process that takes no less than four hours), his dishes aren’t limited to only Italian flavors and techniques. New Zealand lamb, for instance, is dressed with tomato confit, farro, saba, Greek artichoke, and jus, while Spanish octopus swims with salsa verde and Calabrian chili. The steaks which include a 48-day dry-aged Kansas City strip, 40-day dry-aged ribeye, and a Gold Label American Wagyu are seared over authentic Japanese binchotan, a coal made from compressed bamboo powder. “It’s so dense and hard to light,” said the chef. “It burns a lot hotter and cleaner than typical lump charcoal, giving the meat that clean charcoal taste rather than smoke or burn. It’s a clean sear. We finish it off with the most amazing olive oil in the world, all fresh pressed, spicy, and fruity.”
Pizza is also a series regular, made from natural yeast sourdough and smothered with low-moisture mozzarella from Italy and DOP-certified San Marzano tomatoes.
“Money is not our goal,” noted Fishman. “Our goal is to put out the best product. We each work 110 hours per week to make sure La Lupa is the best restaurant our guests have ever been to.”
Giorgio Ceciarelli added: “In the beginning, people said to me, ‘You call yourself Italian and you’re using a Japanese or Peruvian ingredient on an Italian dish? You’re blasting hip-hop in an Italian restaurant?’ [laughs]”
But the rebellion worked, and La Lupa’s books filled up faster than any of the owners imagined. Hungry to expand their concept, they have their sights set next on the Big Apple, with plans to open a locale in NoHo later this year.”
La Lupa123 NJ-33, Manalapan Township / 732.414.6995 / lalupanj.com