John Nealon arrived at Staples High School in 1999 straight from Texas. It was a culture shock. But he played football, and his teammates soon became friends.
He also loved cooking. He took every culinary class offered. Teacher/chef Cecily Gans became a mentor.
Staples football defensive coordinator Lou Socci asked Nealon to cook at his family’s restaurant in New Canaan. That led to steady work — and the perk of creating his own lunches.
“I’d make wraps with mozzarella, bacon, everything,” he recalls. “I said, I want to do this for a living.”
At Providence College, he continued cooking. He learned about the front of the house too, when he moved from an $8-an-hour line cook to waiting tables at Sicilia’s. With tips, he made $300 a night.
After graduating as a history major, Nealon headed straight to restaurant work After director of operations with a Dallas delivery startup (“a really bad concept,” he laughs), he served as the 23-year-old general manager of Westport’s River Horse Tavern (now Rive Bistro).
To learn about fine dining, Nealon moved to L’Escale in Greenwich. He enrolled in Barcelona/Bartaco’s management program, and ran several of their restaurants for 5 years. Then came Fontina.
He and his wife Morgan — also a restaurant professional — decided to go out on their own. They opened Taco Daddy in Stamford, a “fun, no rules” place with “a rippin’ bar.” Their second venture, Lila Rose, was named after their first child.
Mid-COVID, Nealon and his wife came up with their next concept: elevated Italian cuisine.
“Italian dining has gotten very casual,” he says. “That’s fine. But I think there’s a need for contemporary fine food.” And martinis.
Cugine’s — Italian for “cousin,” but also a term of endearment — opened last month at 121 Towne Street, in Stamford’s Harbor Point neighborhood. It quickly drew raves.
Nealon hopes to take guests back to “the era of Frank Sinatra and speakeasys.” There is no signage; a man wearing suspenders walks diners in. Nealon seats them. Each table has its own lamp; vintage chandeliers hang overhead.
Despite the labor shortage in restaurants, Nealon had no trouble assembling a staff. Most waiters and bartenders had worked for him before.
And the chef? Rick O’Connor (“he’s half Italian!” Nealon notes) is young and talented. “He doesn’t have an ego yet,” the owner says. “Just wait till people tell him how good his food is.”
(Cugine’s Instagram is @CuginesItalian. Click here for more information.)
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