January 15, 2014

Cugino’s Italian Specialties in Pennington Offers Wide Array of Fresh Food Choices

“Italian food is comfort food. It tastes good. I could eat it seven days a week!”

Ben Sanford, manager and co-owner with chef Joe Egitto, of Cugino’s Italian Specialties in Pennington, loves what he does. “I just like the idea of food. I’ve been in the food industry for 14 years, and we are very enthusiastic about Cugino’s.”

The Italian Specialty shop, located at 2566 Pennington Road (near the Pennington Circle), has become a popular gathering place for customers from all over the area. Its wonderful displays of tempting Italian specialties and gourmet items are an irresistible combination, and many diners come more than once a week.

Cugino translates to “cousin” in Italian, an appropriate name for the establishment whose owners are indeed cousins. They grew up enjoying Italian dinners at the Egitto family home in Staten Island, and the idea of having their own restaurant took hold early on. “I always liked cooking,” explains Mr. Egitto. “My mom and dad were both good cooks, and I paid attention. I really always hoped to have my own restaurant.”

Italian Market Place

When the opportunity to open Cugino’s came along, he and Mr. Sanford did not hesitate, and it was a very hands-on family effort. They designed and built most of the interior themselves, laying the wood floor and spackling the walls to look like an old Italian market place. The rustic wooden tables holding the imported gourmet items were built by Mr. Sanford’s father, and Mr. Sanford and Mr. Egitto installed the tile in the L-shaped countertop.

“This is such a great location, and we wanted it to have an old-school neighborhood shop feeling. The atmosphere is definitely reminiscent of Italy.”

Cugino’s is primarily a take-out establishment, but seating for about 10 is available at a counter and a nearby table.

Then, there is the food! “We use the freshest ingredients, and we try to get local products whenever they are available,” point out the owners, who also recently opened Cafe 72, an American-style restaurant in West Trenton.

“At Cugino’s, all our retail items are from Italy or New York. Everything is very high quality, and it is extremely important to maintain the quality of the products. Consistency is a high priority.”

Cugino’s is home to all sorts of fresh options and indulgences. The menu offers a variety of panini sandwiches, pasta bowls, personal pizzas, and numerous fresh salads.

Many Favorites

“Eggplant parmesan is very popular, and our antipasto platters, and paninis are stand-outs for us,” reports Mr. Sanford. Among the many panini choices, some favorites include the Italian Combo with capocollo, Genoa salami, sopressata, mortadella, prosciutto, provolone, romaine, tomato, and Italian dressing; the Bruschetta chicken with grilled chicken, bruschetta, basil pesto, and fresh mozzarella; and the eggplant parmesan, including breaded eggplant, marinara sauce, and fresh mozzarella.

The variety of individual 10-inch pizzas offers many favorites. The San Genaro includes Italian sausage, roasted red peppers, and caramelized onions, pomodoro, and fresh mozzarella; the “Grandma” offers pomodore, fresh mozzarella, basil pesto, and garlic. There are also vodka, white, meatball, and vegetable pizzas, among others.

Grilled chicken and chicken and tuna salad can be added to the many salads available. Especially popular is fig salad with mixed greens, prosciutto, and sun-dried figs. Also favored are antipasto with mixed greens, Italian meats and cheeses, olives, and roasted red peppers; grilled chicken Caesar with romaine lettuce, shaved parmesan reggiano, homemade croutons, and roasted chicken. Cugino’s house salad features arugula, cherry tomatoes, red onion, and roasted peppers.

Other popular dishes include stuffed portabellos, manicotti, chicken rollatini, lasagne Bolognese, Chef Eggito’s father’s homemade meat balls, and prosciutto-wrapped artichokes.

There are also very popular daily specials, including, Monday: Italian meatloaf; Tuesday: roast pork panini; Wednesday: shrimp chef selection; Thursday: veal chef selection; Friday: fresh fish selection.

Assorted pastas, sauces, a variety of Italian cheeses, 15 different kinds of olives, and Italian-style breads (arriving daily from New York) are also favorite take-home or sit-down choices. And, coffee, cappuccino, latte, and espresso are all on the menu. “We have a local coffee bean roaster,” points out Mr. Egitto.

Ahead of the Event

“Catering has become a big part of the business,” adds Mr. Sanford. “We do all sizes of parties and events, and we get very busy for the holidays, especially with lots of Christmas Eve dinners, and then New Year’s Eve and New Year’s day. It is best to order catering three or four days ahead of the event.”

Catering specials include panini trays, antipasto platters, pizza platters, and fruit and cheese trays, among others.

Tiramisu, Italian cookies (including Mostacciola specialty cookies), biscotti, assorted Panettone for the holidays, pizelle waffle cookies, specialty Perugina chocolate, and Torone nougat candy appeal to customers with a sweet tooth. The selection of Italian gourmet olive oils and balsamic vinegars, honeys, jams, and gift baskets all provide wonderful hostess or holiday gifts.

Food prices are typically $7 to $12 for sandwiches, salads, and pizzas.

“We want to remain a simple place, not at all pretentious,” says Mr. Sanford. “This is our creation, and we choose everything very carefully. We are definitely hands-on owners.”

Adds Mr. Egitto: “Cugino’s is very special for us. I love cooking and also being out with the customers. They appreciate our years of experience and what we are trying to accomplish.”

Cugino’s is open Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sunday 10 to 5. (609) 730-4100. Website: www.cuginospennington.com.