Mark Cupolo has been contemplating a follow-up to his beloved restaurant, Rocco, for a more than a decade now. A major reason for the wait: he wanted it to be on the same block of Monroe Avenue near downtown.
Finally, all of the elements have aligned — a cool space, a talented chef and a unique concept. The end result is Rella, housed in a wedge-shaped space on a corner, three doors down from his cozy Italian restaurant. The combination oyster bar and wine bar focuses on small plates that showcase fresh seafood shipped overnight from Boston.
“I worked in Boston for many years,” Cupolo said. “This cuisine … is something I’m very familiar with.”
Like Rocco, the setting is intimate. A triangular bar parallel to the shape of the room seats 16 or so. A long window seat is available for those enjoying a glass of wine or waiting for a seat at the bar.
In the interior of the triangle is where the chefs take center stage; preparing the dishes, serving the wine and beer and interacting with customers.
Cruz Nieves, 28, a native of Puerto Rico, worked for Rocco for three years. At the advice of Cupolo, he headed to New York City to further his career. He landed at renowned restaurants: Del Posto, a palatial Italian restaurant owned by Joe and Lidia Bastianich, as well as a short time at Gabriel Kreuther Restaurant, an Alsatian restaurant named for its owner.
But Nieves eventually had enough of the big city. “When I came back from New York I was beat down,” he said. “I was depressed and felt alone there.”
Nieves brought not only his cooking skills to the new restaurant, but also a personality well suited to dealing with customers.
“Cruz is a gregarious guy,” Cupolo said. Cruz worked as host at Rocco for six months to learn the front of house.
In the few days of service that Rella has been open, Cruz has felt energized by seeing the reactions of people eating his food — something chefs usually experience by peeking through the kitchen door or via feedback from servers.
“That fills me up,” he said. “That’s my energy boost.”
“I do love interacting with people and I love cooking. I think it elevates the experience for the guest.”
He has noticed that people often strike up conversations at the bar, sometimes even tasting each other’s food. “We’re trying to bring people together,” he said. “You never know who you’re going to sit next to.”
Cupolo, in the meantime, is enjoying his newfound role of walking back and forth between the restaurants, tasting and adjusting dishes, talking to customers and pitching in as needed.
The menu consists of a dozen small plates, meant to pair well with wine and beer. It changes frequently based on what seafood and vegetables are fresh and available, but expect to always find oysters, some form of chowder, vegetable salads and several fresh seafood dishes.
Some examples from the menu on its third day:
• Iced Northern oysters ($3 each or 6 for $15) were nestled on crushed ice.The fresh, clean flavors of the bivalves were accented either by a tiny dab of classic cocktail sauce or by a speckle of mignonette (tiny cubes of shallots and carrots, along with Champagne vinegar).
• A tuna duo ($15) showcased the fish in both a raw and cooked preparation. Neat rectangles of rosy red tuna crudo were embellished by frisee, shaved radishes and pistachio nuts — the latter bringing a pleasantly surprising flavor and crunch — as well as olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. In the other preparation, a tangy, briny mixture of olive oil poached tuna, capers, green olives, basil and parsley was nestled in crisp lettuce leaves.
• A grilled asparagus salad ($12) was a neat mound of shaved grilled asparagus, radishes, arugula and pancetta drizzled with a creamy buttermilk dressing.
• Rock shrimp and crab rolls ($15) were a play on a classic lobster roll. Rock shrimp and crab were enlivened with lemon juice, parsley and tarragon and served on toasted Parker House rolls, along with crinkle cut potato chips.
If you go
Rella, 181 Monroe Ave., is open 5 to 10 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and 5 to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. It is closed Sunday and Tuesday.
Service is first come, first served; reservations are not available. It only accepts credit cards; it does not accept cash.
The menu includes several gluten-free dishes, as well as some vegetarian options. The chefs can accommodate vegans, but the options could be fairly limited.
Parking is on the street. With high-top seating and a step into the building, it could be a challenging place for wheelchairs.