If you don’t automatically associate Riverhead with dining, you are probably not alone. This East End locale, which connects the North and South forks, has been a late-bloomer. But Riverhead has much to offer beyond mass-market retail stores. Main Street, peppered with old brick buildings and an idyllic water walk, has risen from the ashes of late. And many longtime restaurant owners have embraced the change.
Take, for instance, Jerry Dicecco, the owner of Jerry & the Mermaid, which has occupied the space next to the Long Island Aquarium since 1994. In 2012, Dicecco received a grant from the New York State Main Street program for $50,000, allowing him to invest in renovating his restaurant. In fact, the total renovations cost three times that much and included a revamp of the kitchen and the space’s interior. The food, however, and the restaurant’s congenial atmosphere, remain relatively unchanged.
The restaurant has kept its nautical theme. The “Mermaid,” if you’re wondering, was Dicecco’s late wife, and the sea is everywhere at Jerry’s. If you’re fortunate enough to snag a table by the back windows, you’ll be treated to the ebb and flow of the tide and boats bobbing on the Peconic River. The menu invokes the water, too. There are raw bar items, like Blue Point oysters and local top neck and littleneck clams; steamed Shinnecock mussels, served with white wine and compound butter; calamari with marinara sauce and banana peppers; and Maryland-style crab cakes — and that’s just the appetizers.
Entrées cover further seafaring ground, from fried fish (haddock and flounder) to fried shellfish (scallops, clams, and shrimp) to broiled and seared options, like swordfish and salmon. Of course, there are options available for the land-minded, but did you really come to Jerry’s to order a burger? Ok, fine, it’s totally acceptable if you did, because the burger is not an inherently bad choice. The food at Jerry & the Mermaid is all pretty delicious. It’s simple, and simple can be just what one needs (especially in the event that one happens to be coming from an afternoon spent with young, relentless kids at the aquarium — I’m just saying).
Dicecco’s son, Jerry Dicecco Jr., joined the business a few years back, after graduating from Providence’s Johnson & Wales with a culinary degree. He first traveled throughout Italy and France, before landing, however temporarily, in the kitchen of Daniel Boulud. There, the younger Dicecco worked as the Chef de Tournat at DB Bistro Moderne, eventually turning his direction homeward once more. Returning to Riverhead equipped with a formal culinary education, he took over the kitchen and the front of the house. Today, he runs Jerry’s as the de facto executive chef and general manager, while also teaching culinary arts at Suffolk County Community College.
The renovated iteration of Jerry & the Mermaid is not fancy, nor need it be. It’s a place to commiserate, to hole up with a seafood bisque and a cold beer and a better-than-adequate view of the churning waters. Riverhead may not yet feel like a destination as much as a stopover, but that trend has been shifting, as more restaurants pour into town, and enthusiasm surrounding Long Island’s food scene builds. Eventually, Riverhead may be the next Greenport, but for now, it’s fun to enjoy the off-the-beaten-track nature of this enclave, which remains true to its roots. Places like Jerry & the Mermaid can grow with the times, of course. But places like this are built to survive, no matter the food climate.