I like hole in the wall places. To me, it’s like magic when a restaurant serves delicious meals in a small, quirky, out of the way space — the kind of place where somebody’s dream has been shoehorned into a place the size of a modest apartment. We have a number of good examples in the neighborhood, and one of my favorites is Zucco: Le French Diner. For Francophiles like my wife and me this place is romantic as all get out. It’s also a pretty cost-effective way to scratch a Gallic itch.
There is, of course, a story behind this place. Zucco, the original owner came over from France, where he’d run a wrestling fan magazine. With a few cooks, an espresso machine, a small but clever wine list, an open kitchen and a menu of sandwiches, salads and entrees he served the 15 or so patrons who could fit in at any given time. All the while enforcing a strict “no ketchup, no Budweiser, no reservations, no Zagat” policy. His unique charm – sweet and gruff at the same time – won most diners over. French music played in the background, and the decor made you feel as if you’d just ducked off a Paris street. And the food, while not particularly fancy, was always correct and good.
Two years ago we lost the man. Zucco dropped dead on the sidewalk of a massive heart attack on Saturday, Feb 13, 2010. My wife and I were heartbroken, along with many others who’d had the pleasure of knowing him. But le French Diner lives on: Zucco’s son, Greco, took over, with some help from his friend David. Dijon mustard is still swirled around the edges of plates at the table. French is still spoken. Radio Nova, a Paris station Zucco used to work for, streams from the sound system. The warmth built around keeping the restaurant alive as a tribute to Zucco is palpable – not in an overly sentimental way, but as a labor of love – the way that every good small restaurant is a labor of love.
The kitchen has upped their game, too. The food might not arrive quite as quickly as it used to, but it’s better. The mussel dishes, a lamb shank, a salmon steak entree – the plates have transcended the original vision of a French “diner.” More pedestrian classics like the merguez sausage platter and the Croque Monsieur/Madame show a greater finesse, beating the most recent examples I’ve had in Paris. They’ve even improved the quality of the table bread.
It’s more than a fitting tribute to Zucco and his vision. Zucco Le French Diner has proven it has a life of its own. Or shall I say the hard work of the staff has proven it. If you haven’t been, or haven’t been recently, go now. A very little piece of France here on the Lower East Side is a beautiful thing.
Zucco is located at 188 Orchard Street.
JP Bowersock is a professional musician and music producer who has toured the world repeatedly, eating at top restaurants and hole-in-the-wall joints. He is a serious home cook with over two decades’ experience cooking for family, friends and fellow rock and rollers. Mr Bowersock keeps a toe in the wine business as well, consulting for the wine lists of several neighborhood establishments, including Clandestino, 35 Canal St. When not on tour or in the recording studio he’s scouring the neighborhood for frugal food finds.
Competitively priced small batch vodka made locally? Yep. Of course it’s from Brooklyn. What aren’t they hand making across the river? I’ve seen everything from bicycles to bitters. Now you can find Brooklyn Republic Vodka at Seward Park Liquors. Is it better than Tito’s Handmade? You be the judge. All vodka tastes the same to me – all I notice is whether it seems smooth on the finish. This one does, and I like being able to buy a locally produced spirit.