Cooking professionally since the age of fifteen, The 808 Bistro’s chef and owner Salvatore “Sal” Cucullo has spent a considerable amount of his life inside the kitchen. At his grandfather’s pizzeria in the Bronx, Cucullo was making pizzas himself by age eleven. The family business transformed into a traditional Italian restaurant in New Rochelle, where a young Cucullo was thrown into the mix one weekend when chefs were off-duty. Cucullo instantly recognized his passion for cooking and decided he wanted to pursue the art long-term.
Cucullo knew that ultimately, he wanted his own restaurant. After formal training at the CIA and working at a handful of restaurants, Cucullo compiled what he had learned from each experience to open The 808 Bistro in 2010. 808’s dedicated team is primarily comprised of employees who have been involved since day one, including Cucullo’s mother, Linda. The work atmosphere that Cucullo has created has a visible family feel, not unlike his grandfather’s eatery many years ago. Guests, too, are treated with the same above-and-beyond warmth.
The restaurant’s namesake is not simply its 808 Scarsdale Avenue address. For one, Cucullo’s grandmother always liked the number eight. Cucullo also explained that fifty years ago, the building housed 808 Bar and Grill, which remained in existence for about thirty years. When cleaning and renovating the space, Cucullo uncovered an old photograph of this establishment that is now hanging on the wall, purposefully near the bar. (He added that the other panels hanging on walls all across the restaurant are for acoustical reasons).
In order to showcase his innovative “Italian fusion” menu, Cucullo prepared small portions of several beloved dishes. My meal commenced with a chilled cucumber and pineapple gazpacho that was equal parts spicy and refreshing. To follow was a spinach salad with candied walnuts, strawberries, and fresh burrata. The creamy, unquestionably high-quality cheese elevated this salad to next level delicious.
Crispy shrimp wontons with soy garlic aioli are a relatively new (and somewhat unexpected) appetizer I really enjoyed. Duck spring rolls are another recent addition Cucullo is proud of, although I did not taste them in this visit. To follow the wontons, I savored a pleasingly moist, breadless crab cake with a peach remoulade. I tasted Cucullo’s summer corn succotash on its own, which is usually served with his salmon. What looked like a small, simple bowl of veggies was a truly flavorful and tasty side dish.
It was a given that I would be sampling the renowned pistachio-crusted halibut, served with a tangerine buerre blanc and sautéed spinach. In my multiple previous visits to 808, I had never been able to resist ordering Cucullo’s Nana’s delicious gnocchi, but I remember dining with those who raved about this uniquely-prepared white fish. Needless to say, the halibut lived up to its hype. I loved the juxtaposition of the crunchy nuts with the almost translucent, flaky fish, and dipping every other bite in the citrus added a welcome tangy component. Dessert was a sweet and sticky homemade flan with caramel sauce, whipped cream, and strawberries. Irresistible.
As 808’s constantly changing menu reflects, Cucullo draws from a wide array of cuisines in his cooking. When the restaurant first opened, Cucullo changed up his offerings biweekly but has since dialed down major updates to transpire in line with the seasons—although regulars can take comfort in knowing that certain staples will never vanish. The cocktail menu is tweaked more frequently to feature a plethora of fresh, hand-muddled drinks. It is clear that the same level of creativity applied to Cucullo’s food is matched by The 808 bar.
In order to keep ahead of the culinary curve, Cucullo looks west to see what’s happening in the California food scene, as the opposite coast is often a year or two ahead in that arena. He is also frequently inspired by the work of chefs at other restaurants and will try to put his own twist on dishes he encounters. I discovered he’s a big sushi eater and loves to dine out whenever possible, citing Sushi Mikes in Dobbs Ferry as a favorite spot. If he had to choose his very final meal, though, it would be a classic slice of New York style pizza. I’m with him there.