I sent Marcello a few questions to learn more about the transformation and what to expect at the Cucina.
South Jersey Food Scene: When did you decide to convert Valente’s Italian Specialties into Valente’s Cucina, in a town that already has many Italian restaurants?
Marcello De Feo: It was pretty organic and a decision that made itself, really. Haddonfield really does have a lot of Italian restaurants but so does Collingswood and they all seem to coexist. Truth be told, I did not want to be one of them. I never intended to focus on hot food and refused to make sandwiches for the longest time but the demand was there. So, I caved and I am glad I did. It became a bigger and more regular part of the business than the specialty products and I enjoyed making the food for people.
Now, I can bring the best of both concepts together. Combining those specialty products with freshly prepared foods is exciting. Instead of talking up a retail bottle of saba or bottarga, I could use them in dishes.
Doing this gives me better quality control over the food too. Takeout and delivery really compromised the quality of the product, especially with third-party delivery services. Everything we make is made fresh from scratch and meant to be consumed that way. Dishes like Carbonara do not travel very well and food steams inside of takeout containers. So, I cut out the third-party services, limited what was available for delivery and decided to give people the option to sit and eat their food as soon as it is made.
SJFS: How much effort is involved? (I know you’re shutting down briefly for construction – what work will be involved in converting the space?)
MDF: There is a lot more effort than I expected but it will really be worth it in the end. There is no room for error in my space. Everything is transparent. We need to be as efficient as possible.
The first thing I did was to seek out the help of people who really excel at that. I hired Danielle Capozzi from Adorna Design and Lauren Hooks from Seedling Project Management to help me develop and organize the space. While cutting the kitchen size in half, they managed to increase storage space, give us more cooking equipment, add two types of seating, and design something that is incredibly beautiful.
We built banquette seating, a bar, cabinetry, a wet bar with wine storage, high end finishes, and a lot more. During the pandemic, we have been making gradual changes, which spread out the chaos of construction in both good and bad ways. The shape has evolved slowly over the last few months but it you have not been to Valente’s in a while, it will look completely different when you come in again.
SJFS: What can we expect at the Cucina? What will set you apart?
MDF: I pared down and split up the existing menu to create a Lunch menu of South Philly comfort foods and a Family Meal menu of Italian-American classics for takeout and delivery. Our kitchen will close from 3-5 to prep for dinner. During that time, the front of house will remain open and we will have a Café menu available for anyone who wants an espresso and biscotto.
When I think of Cucina, though, I think about dinner. That is the star of the show. In that regard, I think of it as more of a wine bar with a focused menu of small plates meant for sharing than I do an Italian restaurant. My heritage and experience permeate the menu but with a more liberal approach to Italian food. At its core, Italian cuisine is all about using a few fresh, local ingredients and making them shine. That is my goal. So, while I will approach menu development with the influence of Abruzzo in mind, I will be focused on using what is available around me. I have tentative plans to have some farmers grow ingredients for us and I hope, at some point, to have a bit of land I can use to grow ingredients too.
No matter the time of day, I want you to feel like you are in my home kitchen, like you are a member of my family. Naming it Cucina seemed perfect. Having a cozy space was a perfect pairing too.
SJFS: Who is working in the kitchen?
MDF: I am working on our roster. I am the Executive Chef. Jon D’anna (Sous Chef) and Harry Dallmer (Chef de Partie) remain on board from Valente’s Italian Specialties and we have hired an industry vet, Luis Contreras (Chef de Partie), who has worked in a number of great kitchens in and around Haddonfield over the years. He is quickly becoming the glue that holds everything together.
I have been in talks with Chef Antonio Lozzese from Milan who has worked in Michelin listed restaurants about joining us but that will remain on the back burner until the pandemic blows over and the restrictions on work visas loosen up again. My hope is to have him over here by 2021.
SJFS: Are you hiring or do you have all the staff you’ll need?
MDF: We just began hiring some front of house staff. I am really excited about a server we just hired. I have very high hopes for her. I hope to have her on full time and hire a second server to work part-time. If the last few weekend nights are an indication of what is to come, I will likely add another Sous at some point too.
SJFS: When do you expect to reopen?
MDF: Valente’s will only be closed for this upcoming week, really. The work that is being done right now is work that required everyone to be out of the building and it should not take too long to do. Of course, I just jinxed myself by saying that, though.
Our new sign should be done soon. If the timing works out, when we do reopen, it will be as Valente’s Cucina.
SJFS: Any special dinners coming in the future like you did last year?
MDF: I loved doing the outdoor fundraiser dinners with Walt (Gouldsbury), but there are no new ones in the works right now. He does make our desserts through The Custard Cart, though.
We may do some Founder & Signer pop-ups as the opportunities present themselves. Chef David Murray from Denim BYOB has hopped on board with us. He’s a great addition! What’s not to love about that guy?
I get a sense that, when the iron is hot, we will strike and open up a brick and mortar spot for F&S. There are no concrete plans for that, just my gut feeling. If a place pops up in Haddonfield that makes sense, I can see us making a move on it.
Looking forward to checking out Valente’s Cucina when it opens! Be sure to check it out when it does.