By Kimberly Cecchini
Chef Mike Carrino, “Not many chefs look their food in the eyes. Literally…I know my lambs. I’ve birthed lambs…I witnessed the birth of this lamb and now I’m going to witness the reason for its existence,” Chef Michael Carrino earnestly speaks about the relationship he has with some of the humanely raised animals that he chooses for Pig & Prince, his second restaurant in Montclair, NJ.
Chef Carrino developed his predilection for fresh, local food through the ethics of his alma matter, the famed Culinary Institute of America. He attended the New York campus where he says that a significant amount of ingredients were sourced from farmers in the surrounding Hudson Valley. Now he proudly supports farmers in and around New Jersey and has trusted the same fish monger every day for the past seven years. His passion is unmistakable for what, he says, “our grandparents simply called food”.
Inspiration for the dishes is just as local as many of the ingredients; Pig & Prince is “Jersey” food. The menu aptly represents the meaning behind the gastropub’s name; the food may be more casual than the expensive French cuisine he served at his previous venture, but there’s little else that is casual about the Jersey inspired food. There is an elegance behind the creation and presentation of the dishes. Each plate is a carefully executed lithograph of the Garden State native’s works of art.
“Renovation, Resurrection & Reconstruction”
The casual also meets the elegant in the restaurant’s design and atmosphere. “When we first opened,” Chef Carrino recalls, “I said ‘If I could cook food that is half as pretty or half as enticing and exciting as this space, then we’re going to be fine.” Sitting in what used to be the epicenter of town, the Montclair Railroad Station of Lackawanna certainly deserves its acknowledgement as a notable architectural treasure on the National Register of Historic Places.
Although the building’s stately charm drew Carrino’s attention and continues to be an allure for new diners, it took a lot of work to recover the splendors of yesteryear under the remnants of fast food and retail. Since its closing in 1981, the station had been alternately morphed into a Pizza Hut, a diner and a video rental store.
Carrino and his team recovered many elements of the train station and intermixed contemporary designs and souvenirs that are reminiscent of the station’s heyday in the early twentieth century. They ripped away Hollywood Video’s purple carpets and a layer of linoleum to expose the hand laid tesserae. The oversized brass chandelier was reinforced and co-opted as a hideaway for the sound system.
Between the entrance and the maître d’ aptly sits a refurbished section of a station bench. A wall of oversized pop art utensils divides the front room into a minimalistic but cozy lounge area where steel grays are juxtaposed with warm browns and reds.
Once a space of transience where travelers waited to board, they transformed the cavernous central room into a more intimate establishment that now invites guests to linger. Two sections of a red plush quilted backdrop and a shallow alcove with an oversized sepia hen break up the brick expanse along the back of the room. Sunlight illuminates the space through a large arched window and, at night, the room is warmly lit in part from the original dome lamps hang from chain links around the perimeter of the room. Reading lamps recovered from the waiting area sit on the handsome bar that was constructed by Carrino’s investment partner. Along the length of the bar, a railroad tie fittingly serves as a foot rest.
“I spend more time here than in my house. If you come in here, you come into my home.” Carrino aspires to have his staff and diners feel the same way. He may not shy away from excusing a diner if they act inappropriately towards his staff, but besides these exceptions, every guest is very important to him. The engaging chef wants people to enjoy their experience and is happy to take a break from cooking to chat with diners when they ask for him.
Set to commemorate the opening day in 2012, the original station clock is frozen at 8 and 24 on its perch above the dining room. Apparently, tradition dictates that a building needs three incarnations before it is successful. With Chef Carrino’s passion and creativity, Pig & Prince is likely to celebrate its anniversary many times over. It is the old Lackawanna’s station fourth incarnation.
Pig & Prince: Restaurant & Gastro Lounge
1 Lackawanna Plaza
Montclair, NJ 07042