Sometime in the midst of another 90-hour workweek, West Reading restaurateur Adam Cocuzza sat down to discuss his latest upcoming venture, Noodl.
Located in a brand new building under construction on the 400 block of Penn Avenue, Noodl will be a small, fast-casual eatery serving traditional ramen dishes when it opens sometime later this year — tentatively summer, Cocuzza revealed.
“You’ll walk in and order from a kiosk, and you’ll choose your broth, your noodle and your toppings, or there will be three to five predetermined bowls that you can just choose from,” Cocuzza said, adding that the dining room will seat up to 25 people, but the focus is on takeout.“Really just try to go modern with it. I won’t really be using any traditional terminology, but it will be traditional recipes and ingredients.”
The idea is to take a well-known and popular Japanese cuisine and make it more approachable to American diners who largely associate the dish with the cheap cups of noodles sold in stores.
“Ramen has been a thing in Japan for decades, and it’s just commonplace over there, it’s street food,” Cocuzza said. “Here, you’ve got a decent chunk of people who get that, and then you’ve got a massive chunk of people who really only know it as this pre-packaged dried noodle.
“It’s a bit of a weird conundrum to be in because good pork belly ramen with a soft boiled egg has been around longer than the packaged noodle ramen — but more people think of the packaged noodle ramen before they think of the pork belly soft boiled egg ramen.”
His enthusiasm for the presentation of ramen is impressive, first because it’s described so vividly that it’s almost as if you were sitting in on the design meeting, but then also because it’s Friday afternoon and who knows how many hours he’s already put in this week.
Cocuzza also owns Say Cheese! and the Nitro Bar on Penn Avenue, as well as the West Reading Motor Club restaurant he hopes will finally launch next year.
And there’s so very, very much that’s happening right now.
Approaching its 10th year in business in August, Say Cheese! is in the midst of both a celebration of and almost transformation back to its roots.
The major change that should coax diners through the doors is the new menu, which is now heavy on unique grilled cheese sandwiches and macaroni and cheese combinations — as one might expect from a place with a name like Say Cheese!
“It was time to really embrace the cheese aspect, the heart of our concept,” Cocuzza said.
The revamped menu dropped in January, but that’s far from the only thing afoot at 600 Penn Ave.
A bar has also been installed near the restaurant’s front entrance, and the cheese shop and gift shop that once stood in its place will be moving into a location next door that Cocuzza estimated at around 1,000 square feet.
When the new store opens, hopefully in time for Say Cheese!’s 10th anniversary, it will have substantially more to offer.
“That’s gonna be graduating as well,” Cocuzza said. “Not only is it getting its own space, but because of all these changes and connecting the two buildings, I’m actually able to extend my liquor license. We’re hoping to be able to sell bottles of wine, vermouths and lower alcohol liquors.
“So it will be a wine and cheese shop.”
While Say Cheese! was only briefly shut down by COVID restrictions early in the pandemic, it took far longer for Cocuzza to get Nitro Bar back up and running due to the reduced labor pool in the service industry.
The establishment at 416 Penn Ave. was finally able to reopen in February as the labor crunch has eased somewhat in recent months.
“We got staffed up enough here at Say Cheese! is really it,” Cocuzza explained. “My old Nitro crew came over here and helped me reopen Say Cheese!, but then getting their spots at Say Cheese! replaced to get them back to Nitro Bar was difficult.
“Slowly, the world is going back to the way it used to be. It’s still not there, but it’s much more there than it was a year ago, so that’s really the change.”
Nitro Bar, of course, is a completely different concept and atmosphere from Say Cheese!, focusing on upscale cocktails, craft beers and elevated pub grub with bold flavors — again, in keeping with its name.
“It’s still the same Nitro Bar, but we also added a half-off wing night on Wednesdays, an all-you-can-eat mussels night on Thursdays,” Cocuzza said. “And, of course, we have live music on Tuesdays as always, and we’re still doing Thrashing Thursdays on the third Thursday of every month, which is heavy metal trivia with concert ticket giveaways and that kind of stuff.”
West Reading Motor Club
With all this great stuff going on Cocuzza’s other locations, the West Reading Motor Club project has taken a bit of a backseat.
Originally planned as more of a fine dining experience to open on the first floor under Nitro Bar in mid-2020, the pandemic forced him to hit pause on the restaurant, which is named for the historic building in which it resides.
Much of the work inside is completed, and Cocuzza still wants to get it up and running.
The timetable, however, is further out.
“I’ve kind of put it on the back burner,” he said. “There is still a small amount of physical construction left just on the bar itself, but the space is done. I’ve got artwork hanging, I’ve got the floor uncovered, tables are out, chairs are out. We’ve even uncovered the windows so you can kind of peer in.
“I’d like to think that early next year is attainable, but it really just depends. Right now, I’m at the mercy of the cheese shop, I’m at the mercy of the Noodl project down the street … and getting everything in a comfortable motion. It’s just gonna take a minute.”
A love story
No matter what the project is, it’s easy to buy in and get excited for it because Cocuzza is so passionate about every detail.
Even the things you didn’t know you’re thinking about when you go out to eat, he’s not only thought about it, he’s probably perfected whatever detail he’s striving to create.
“This is like my favorite thing to do — come up with restaurant concepts,” Cocuzza said. “Come up with a face and attitude environment for that restaurant to live in. Like Noodl, I get to build a physical box for it to live in that space, but then also this mental box of this is what we are, this is how we do things, this is what it looks like, this is what it sounds like, this is how it feels and tastes.
“There’s a part of every restaurant that you can’t touch, to the music you play, to how I tell my staff to talk to people and how to answer certain questions. I love that sort of intangible experience that a lot of people don’t notice, but if it wasn’t there, you’d notice that it’s missing.”
It’s not merely his own restaurants those feelings apply to, either.
Last year, Cocuzza was one of the driving forces behind West Reading Restaurant Week to help drive COVID-weary diners back inside restaurants.
“I think it was one of those necessary events that happens in an area like this,” he said. “We’ve got enough restaurants now that we’re obviously a serious food town. Something like Restaurant Week is just another way to say it to the outside world.”
And even though, on the surface at least, it would appear to be a direct competitor to his Noodl project, Cocuzza was quick the highlight the new Rakkii Ramen restaurant that just opened up the road from Say Cheese! on North Sixth Avenue.
He’s a big promoter of all West Reading restaurants, not just his own, believing that a high tide raises all boats.
“This is the area I grew up in,” Cocuzza said. “I played my first open mic in this building Say Cheese! is in. My first concert experience was in the basement of this building. I went to Wyomissing (High School). I got in trouble in West Reading and skateboarded and the whole thing.
“To be back here and to be doing what I love and see the area have grown so much since we first opened Say Cheese! is exciting.”