Bite Me isn’t going to be enough on Walnut Street any more; you’re going to want to sit down and finish the entire plate. Cucina 98, a cozy eatery tucked in the front of Corso 98’s kitchen, is now open Tuesdays through Fridays for lunch. After a soft opening last week, Lisa Marie and Elio, the power-couple behind Corso 98, are in full swing with sandwiches, salads, detoxifying water, and the deepest, most wonderful iced espresso in town for those who stop in to the tiny but tasty lunch spot.
Those who have enjoyed a meal at Corso 98 will recognize familiar items like the fantastic ravioli and lasagne, homemade with the freshest of ingredients. However, simpler items like a chicken salad wrap and a truly delicious eggplant sandwich are the perfect lunch to stay or take-away. The space is bright and welcoming, but small. Owner and operator Lisa Marie said she’d happily open up the Corso 98 dining room if needed.
On my first visit during Cucina 98’s opening week, I took home the Eggplant Sandwich ($8). I take lunch seriously, and the sweetness of the eggplant together with the tartness of the goat cheese and greens over the crunch of the pine nuts fulfilled my expectations. I meant to save some for my husband to try, but he went without. Next time.
On my second visit, Lisa Marie was serving up thick and juicy hamburgers and cheeseburgers. One grade-schooler was devouring a hamburger and hand-cut fries while his mom enjoyed a colorful, fresh roasted beet, goat cheese, pignoli salad ($10). Another burger, this one with cheese and caramelized onions, left the kitchen for a long-time Montclair resident’s table. “These are fries,” he said. “I know fries. These are the real thing.” His plate went back to the kitchen clean. Another pair of lunch visitors ordered the sausage and pepper sandwich, made with a long-time and well-loved recipe. They each finished every single morsel.
Although tempted by the beet salad’s vibrant color, on this second visit I decided on the Garden Salad with Grilled Salmon ($12). My perfectly grilled (finished in the oven) piece of salmon came with a huge salad. The green beans, fennel, arugula, and a touch of red onion in the salad partnered crisply with my salmon. A perfect lunch.
Drinks are old school at Cucina 98. There’s a classic Coca-Cola cooler holding iced espresso and coffee, and next to it stands a large glass jar, complete with spigot, filled with homemade Detox Water. I enjoyed the Detox Water with my salad. It has lemon, cucumber, and mint in the iced water. I don’t know if it detoxed anything, but the water was definitely refreshing as I sipped and people watched on Walnut Street. I also tried a post-lunch iced cappuccino; it was so good that I didn’t bother with sugar.
For those who do want some sweetness at the end of a meal, Cucina 98 has cakes by the slice ($3) – if the coffee cake is there – GET IT! – and gelato ($2). That is all in addition to the usual Italian cookies and treats.
With several wonderful lunch spots on Walnut Street, I asked Lisa Marie why she had decided to open up her own space for lunch. “I’ve got two kids in college. I want to pay for it!” she explained, half-laughing. She went on to say that it seemed like a natural extension of both Corso 98 restaurant and the Bite Me take-away business, which is open every Saturday. “The supplies are here already, and higher turnover is better for everyone.”
Judging from the the happy and satisfied patrons already loving Cucina 98, its addition to the Walnut Street gourmet food strip will definitely be better for everyone.
Cucina 98 is at 96-98 Walnut Street, Montclair, NJ 07042. phone: (973) 746 0789