TRATTORIA PROCACCINI IN PRINCETON FOCUSES ON REGIONAL ITALIAN SPECIALTIES THAT ARE TRUE TO THEIR ROOTS
BY JESSICA JONES GORMAN • PHOTOS BY JUSTIN LUBRANICKI
John Procaccini was a successful businessman who, admittedly, had “zero experience” in the restaurant industry when he changed the New Jersey dining landscape in 1999 with the launch of an uncommon concept.
“Our goal with that first restaurant was to bring innovation to Italian cuisine,” Procaccini said. “I’ve been traveling to Italy every year since I was a child. I wanted to bring back all of the fresh ingredients we use there and introduce them to clientele here.”
Procaccini, who hails from Molise, in south central Italy, explained that he crafted a menu and atmosphere that was both rustic and true to his Old World roots.
“Molise is on the Adriatic Sea, about 45 minutes north of Naples on the opposite coast,” he said. “It’s basically the gut of Italy…and the beauty of where we are from is that you are surrounded by this rich mountain air and all of the wonderful ingredients it helps produce. The sea is full of fresh fish, truffes are indigenous there, and the ashy solid soil and southeastern exposure are perfect conditions for the tintilia grape, which produces a very special wine. We use it in so many of our recipes…while most Italian restaurants soak their lady fingers in espresso for a tiramisu, we soak ours in tintilia to make a ‘vinomisu.’ It makes for a very special and unique dish.”
Those unique dishes built a winning concept. Drawing upon the success of that first endeavor, he opened a few more eateries before forming the Gretalia Hospitality Group in 2010. He took over the beloved Princeton mainstay, PJ’s Pancake House, and although it was out of his comfort zone, tackled updating the restaurant and adding a twist; after serving breakfast foods all day, it would offer classic tavern food in the afternoon and evening. Its success led to the opening of four more locations. He added Osteria Procaccini in Pennington, and then Crosswicks. Trattoria Procaccini, a full service establishment, also in Princeton, has become the hospitality group’s showpiece.
“We created a rustic Italian ambiance here using warm colors and a lot of restored wood,” he said, pointing to Trattoria’s 200 year old salvaged barn doors and weathered shutters. “We built upon that authentic Italian menu and really focused on farm to table, bringing customers those dishes you just cannot find anywhere else. Yes, we serve chicken and shrimp parm, but also have higher end artisanal dishes made with ingredients imported straight from Molise.”
The meatballs are Procaccini’s specialty crafted from beef, veal, and pork, then fried and braised using a special process. His staff also “convection cooks” its fish, serving the branzino with the skin on, tenting it in aluminum foil, surrounding it with onions, peppers, rosemary and sage, and steaming it “to perfection.”
“In Italy, that’s how we serve it,” he said, “…surrounded by all of the flavors of the herbs, vegetables, and potatoes, and it simply falls apart on the plate,” adding that the work of Corporate Chef, Vincent Bulzomi, has greatly helped elevate menu selections.
There are also several varieties of polenta, broccoli rabe, and sausage, along with the family’s secret Bolognese sauce. For his vegan customers, Procaccini concocted something special.
“In Princeton, there are a lot of vegetarians and vegans, so we’ve created a meatless meatball out of rustic Italian bread, parmesan cheese, garlic, parsley, and extra virgin olive oil, so they get the consistency of a meatball that’s also braised in our Sunday sauce,” he explained. “It’s hard to believe you’re not eating meat.”
The recipes are all pulled from the family cookbook, and Procaccini’s mother visits the restaurant to oversee the sauce and comes in weekly to bake her famous ricotta cheese cookies.
“Our whole childhood, our whole life revolved around the dinner table,” he said. “We traveled to Italy every year to visit my grandparents, and that’s where I learned that truly good food comes from the land. When my parents immigrated to America, they brought that ideal with them…growing their own tomatoes in the garden, planting a lemon tree, and picking their own grapes and figs. When I was growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, that artisanal style of cooking was looked down upon, but now people travel more and have learned to appreciate it.”
And that fresh menu includes a lot of homemade details like olives, herbs, wine, and coffee from the old country.
“It’s those little things that make this restaurant so unique,” Procaccini concluded. “They make every meal flavorful and different.”
2 Crosswicks Chesterfield Road, Crosswicks / 609.291.5525
7 Tree Farm Road, Pennington / 609.303.0625 / getforky.com