Hey, How'd They Get Fresh Seafood?Aug 01, 2021 12:30PM ● By Mike Cutillo
When the opportunity arose for Lorraine and Roc Menio to open a new restaurant in their beloved Watkins Glen, they looked at themselves not as competitors in an already vibrant food scene but as collaborators.
“The village had many authentic and longtime restaurants. They have great food, and they own that. We didn’t want to step in where somebody else has already been,” Lorraine says. “But Watkins Glen did not have a true seafood restaurant and that’s why we set out to develop one. If you’re going to be a restaurant, it should be something that nobody else has, so that we can add to the menu of the village. We wanted to give the community something that people have been asking for for a long time.”
And so—since the May 29, 2020, opening of Kookalaroc’s Bar & Grill—this historic Schuyler County village on the southern end of Seneca Lake has something else besides its bucolic state park and its history of fast cars at Watkins Glen International. It has a place that serves fresh seafood.
That is no easy feat, either, considering that the village is about 300 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. To provide the eatery’s seafood and to make sure, as cousin Tony Vickio says, it’s “the freshest of the fresh,” it’s not flown in or trucked in; Roc and son Matthew make the 7 1⁄2-hour, 445-mile trip to Wellfleet, Massachusetts, every week or two.
Nestled halfway between the tip and elbow of Cape Cod, Wellfleet was settled in 1650 and almost immediately became known for its seafood, especially its Wellfleet Oysters.
“Roc and Matthew, they’re literally out on the boats in the ocean getting seafood,” Lorraine says. “They select the clams, the oysters, lobsters, scallops. They are all hand-selected.”
Then they haul them back to upstate New York where Kookalaroc’s chef Steve Allen turns them into dishes such as broiled oysters, raw clams on the half shell, peel-and-eat shrimp in a shrimp boil, and his signature seafood platter.
Now, what about that name? Is it some kind of exotic seafood dish? Steve, from Ithaca, has experience cooking in California and Hawaii. Is it Hawaiian, maybe, for oysters on the half-shell? Nope and nope.
It is Roc’s nickname.
“I worked construction all my life, and people would hire me to do their job, and I’d get it done way ahead of schedule,” he explains. “They’d say, ‘You’re nuts, you’re kooky.’ And then it became, ‘Here comes Kookalaroc.’ So, it went from kooky to Kookalaroc. People said, ‘If you ever own a bar or a restaurant, call it Kookalaroc.’”
Of course, as so many of these stories go, there never was any plan to own a bar or a restaurant for the two locals. Roc retired about five years ago from his job as a union carpenter, and Lorraine has been in the hairdressing business for over forty years. She still has a salon across 11th Street from the bar and grill.
When they decided to take the plunge (no seafood pun intended) into the food business a couple of years ago, they purchased the land at 107 11th Street—almost directly across Route 14 from Watkins Glen State Park and behind Smalley’s Garage, famous in the auto racing world—tore down another hair salon that had been there, and proceeded to build a massive forty-by-eighty-foot post-and-beam structure that reflects the ambiance of the wooden buildings at the state park. Roc did much of the work himself with the help of Matthew (his co-fish monger who also is a skilled welder), his brother Mark Menio, his brother-in-law Dave Cherock, who died in February from COVID-19, and Vickio, the idea man who has run the self-proclaimed “World Famous Vickio Signs” shop in Watkins Glen for forty-nine years and provides comic relief (“I was here when they dug Seneca Lake,” he quips.).
If you get the feeling that this is a true family affair—and that they love being around one another—you would be correct.
The building itself is part of the allure and could double as a museum to Watkins’ racing lore. Roc and Matt built the circular bar, which can accommodate thirty race fans; there are numerous TVs suspended by hangers Matt welded; and glass garage doors open to an outdoor hand-built wood-and-stone bar with room for another sixty patrons. Race teams, such as Ferrari, have donated jackets and other memorabilia; Matt incorporated shiny gears, bicycle, and car parts into the stair railings; the ceiling is adorned with other bikes, car parts, a large canoe, even an anchor. There’s also an autographed photo of Mickey Mantle hanging on one of the walls, not far from a framed memorial collage of the late Dave Cherock.
Remember, too, that this is a bar and grill, so seafood alone would not cut it, especially for the numerous race fans who flock from all over. Steve says burgers are popular, as are Philly cheesesteaks and his macaroni and cheese. And yes, as you may expect from a restaurant run by a family named Menio, there is a selection of Italian specialties, too, including Steve’s homemade gnocchi and sauces. He also makes many of the desserts himself, including what Roc calls “the best cannoli on the East Coast.”
So, bar and grill, seafood restaurant, great desserts, chicken barbecues, live music on weekends, happening vibe, family affair (they cater and even do breakfast benefits for charity): those aresome words to describe a joint that goes by one very distinct word—Kookalaroc’s.
“We absolutely never thought that we’d be on the other side of the counter,” Lorraine says. “But we have been completely blessed.”