Many moons ago, cars lined up and down Prospect Avenue in Hackensack waiting for an overworked valet to finally get to their car while a well-appointed porter opened the doors and welcomed you into one of Bergen County’s hottest restaurants, aptly named “The Restaurant.” People looked down from the balconies of the surrounding high-rise buildings as limos pulled up and N.Y. Yankees got out to begin their night. It was a different time, and recapturing “The Restaurant’s” magic has been a challenge since.
After several attempts to revive The Restaurant’s success, the current owner of the property has brought a new group in to make the changes necessary to turn this Hackensack locale into a hotspot once again. After a hiatus from the restaurant industry for 15 years, Michael Monaco of Fort Lee’s PiccoLissimo fame will head the partnership tasked with changing this restaurant’s luck. He is joined by Executive Chef Michael DeNegris in the kitchen.
Together, the pair has over 50 years of restaurant experience. Monaco, a Cliffside Park native, began his career at Peluso’s before moving on to Archers Ristorante in Fort Lee to apprentice under Chef Joseph “Sonny D” DiCrescenzi, who notably was flown to California often to cook for Frank Sinatra and his friends. During that time, Monaco realized there was no restaurant that offered moderately priced dining. Essentially, there were pizza places or restaurants with white glove service, and nothing in between. With that, PiccoLissimo was born. Fast forward 10 years, and Monaco sold his shares in PiccoLissimo and opened Baci and East Hill Grill in Englewood, followed by Sanducci’s in River Edge, before opening In Napoli in Fort Lee and then retiring from the restaurant business in 2000 to pursue other ambitions.
DeNegris, on the other hand, was also trained under Sonny D before becoming executive chef of the former Smoke Steakhouse in Englewood, New Bridge Inn in New Milford and Stony Hill Inn in Hackensack, to name a few. Now, he turns his attention to Picco Tavern.
It’s easy to pass right by Picco Tavern while driving down Prospect Avenue in Hackensack. It’s dwarfed by high-rise apartment buildings on either side and all along either side of the street. Its stature next to these large buildings doesn’t allow you to realize how large the restaurant is. Drop your car at the valet and take a step inside, however, and you can see how this place once housed all the glitz and glam Bergen County had to offer.
Monaco doesn’t want glitz and glam. He’s spent his life in restaurants, both his own and many others. When he hears about a cool new concept, he goes to check it out to see if there are aspects that will help shape his philosophy going forward.
“Although I’ve worked in restaurants for so many years, a lot has changed, so I like to check out new places and see what they’re doing and see how customers are responding. I try to take little pieces of that back with me to form new ideas for my places,” said Monaco.
“I remember when I was working at Archers and someone told me about this new place called Fridays. There weren’t corporate restaurants back then like there are today. I had to go see what this place was about,” Monaco continued.
When Picco Tavern opened a year ago, the owner of the property was hesitant to let Monaco and his partners go too far outside what he felt was their wheelhouse. After proving success, however, Monaco says it’s time for Picco Tavern to finally be transformed to live up to its name, a “tavern.”
With that, Monaco expects big changes in April 2018. Feeding off of the energy of places like Fire & Oak, a restaurant in Montvale that Monaco frequents, he wants to create that kind of atmosphere in Hackensack.
“Younger, more casual, more lively,” Monaco said.
While Monaco and his team revamp the look of the restaurant, they’ve been perfecting a menu that will cater to the audience that you’ll find out at Houston’s at the Shops at Riverside on any given night, another hotspot where you’ll often find Monaco.
The new menu focuses on pub fare and leaves some of the more elegant dishes behind. In order to do this seamlessly, Picco Tavern is really divided between the main restaurant and a deli that is open at 6:30 a.m. daily for breakfast.
Here, you can walk in and get a “God Bless This Prosciutto Sandwich,” with prosciutto, triple cream brie, fig jam and arugula topped with balsamic and olive oil. Then, come for a relaxing dinner later that same day and Chef DeNegris will have the “Whole Lobster Special,” which is stuffed with crabmeat and baked with seasoned breadcrumbs and a lemon reduction.
Though the main menu may be simplified, it will still have a variety fit for any group. Pizzas, burgers, pastas and salads will be the main features of the new menu, while a butcher cut filet mignon and the capellini crabmeat Serafino can be attributed to Chef DeNegris’ cooking finesse. Regardless of a simpler menu, Monaco assures that there will always be a variety of specials to keep it interesting.
While the dinner menu might see the least significant changes, the breakfast and lunch menus are really where the “tavern” concept shines through. While the “Picco Chicken Skillet” with crushed bacon, grilled chicken, potatoes, avocado and diced tomato topped with melted Monterey Jack cheese and poached eggs caught our attention, the variety of fruit and Acai bowls are sure to keep you focused and energized throughout the day.
Omelets, burgers, a wide range of whole grain wraps, salads and pizzas round out the menu, with a few signature sandwiches harkening back to Bergen County’s “good ole days.” Take the “Italian Hackie,” for instance: Italian ham, capicola, Italian hot peppers, aged provolone dripped with extra virgin olive oil on a hero roll. Speaking of hero rolls, all the bread in the restaurant is fresh baked in house from a baker trained at Balthazar’s.
While Picco Tavern might not take us back in time to Hackensack’s heyday, Monaco, his partners and Chef DeNegris are going to give us what Bergen County truly deserves: a great place to go to listen to live entertainment, have drinks out on their outdoor patios with friends and enjoy some really good, hearty and delicious food. We look forward to seeing what Picco Tavern has in store. Who knows, it could become “the restaurant” in Bergen County once again.
Picco Tavern is located at 160 Prospect Ave. in Hackensack. To learn more or to make reservations, visit piccotavern.com.
By Brandon Goldstein