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Lucia restaurant takes over the old Cook Room spot in Middle Island

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Melvin Recinos was nervous the first day of his new restaurant.

No one showed when the doors opened at 10 a.m. By 12:30 p.m., the tables had turned.

“As soon as we got the first table, it was nonstop,” said Recinos, 35, of Cutchogue.

Lucia in Middle Island, Recinos’ second location to bear his grandmother’s name, celebrated its grand opening Thursday at 25 Middle Country Road.

Throughout the day, the owner, in his purple T-shirt, could be seen zipping from the grill, to the front counter, to the back office.

Anita Alampioska, Recinos’ wife of two years who only recently started working in the two Lucias locatoins, was just as busy, greeting customers, manning the register and waiting tables.

Both spared time between tasks to thank the customers who welcomed them to the area.

Alampioska, 29, said she liked her previous job at Cohen’s Fashion Optical, but now enjoys working at her husband’s restaurants. “I like that I get to hang out with my husband,” she said. “And I like being with with the [customers], making sure they have a great experience.”

‘looking for tacos’

Recinos, after a successful five years at his Mattituck location, said he was looking for another location for over a year. He and Alampioska found the vacant site of the old Cook Room — a once-locally popular breakfast destination — by chance.

“We came here because we were looking for tacos,” Recinos said.

He said he and his wife would traverse Long Island on their off-days looking for new restaurants, especially taco places. A Friday in April took them by the vacant Cook Room location.

After a four-week renovation alongside his cousin and 10 friends, Recinos is now serving his own tacos, alongside pupusas, empanadas, quesadillas, burritos, and several traditional El Salvadorian dishes, in Middle Island.

Just like the Mattituck location, hungry customers can call in orders to take home, or dine-in at one of the booths and wood block tables that still feel fresh out of a workshop.

The Middle Island spot, however, has one unique feature: an outdoor tiki bar complete with enough picnic tables to seat 30 guests. The entrepreneur said the patio will be ready once he finishes building the bar and receives approvals from the New York State Liquor Authority.

Learning from Lucia

Recinos moved from El Salvador to America at age 18 and began his food service career as a dishwasher at the Hellenic Snack Bar & Restaurant in East Marian. He said he went onto work at the North Fork Table and Inn alongside the late Gerry Hayden, who was one of the most revered chefs in the Northeast.

After Hayden’s passing in 2015, Recinos said he decided to go out on his own and open his own restaurant. Though he worked alongside the revered Gerry Hayden, Recinos’ culinary education truly began before he even arrived in America.

His mother owned a restaurant in El Salvador.

“I learned from her how to cook,” Recinos said. “And from my grandma, Lucia.”

One of the more popular dishes at his Mattituck Lucia, according to Recinos, is the Farmer’s Plate.

“We put that plate on the menu because my grandma and grandpa were farmers,” he said “And every time we’d go there we’d eat the same dish.”

The dish is simple, tasty and packed with protein, consisting of carne asada, or grilled steak, with all the trimmings. At Lucias, this means a plate loaded with Salvadorian chorizo, rice and beans, fresh cheese, avocado, pico de gallo and sweet plantains.

“That’s the way we eat it at my grandma’s house,” he said.

Reaching a new community

Over his five-year stint out in the North Fork, Recinos said he has built strong connections within the community. Much like his mother and grandmother, he has taken on the role of teacher.

Every December, he said he visits high schools from Mattituck through Greenport seeking kids interested in learning tricks of his trade. He said he helps a lot of Latin kids who may not have access to higher education.

“College is expensive so they don’t have the opportunity to go,” Recinos said. “If they want they can to learn how to cook, how to manage a restaurant, or be a bartender, a prep cook, a sommelier.”

He said he holds these classes twice a week from January through March at the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church of Greenport.

The COVID-19 pandemic also gave Recinos a chance to help the community that supported him in his venture.

“We closed for two months, but when we opened it was really good for us,” he said “We started donating gift cards and dinners for families to churches, and they gave it to the right people who really needed that.”

Recinos said he wants to have a similar presence in Middle Island.

But first he needs to start meeting new people around town, and at the restaurant.

He also needs to find more employees. He said he is currently looking for a dishwasher and prep cook.

Once he has enough staff, Recinos said he plans to stop bustling about his Middle Island spot, spend time with he and Alampioska’s 1-year-old daughter and look ahead.

“I’m gonna take care of my family,” he said. “And find another spot.”