By the mid 19th century, dozens of taverns and inns lined the National Road, the country’s first federally funded highway, as travelers journeyed through the wilds of western Maryland bound for the Ohio River and beyond.
In many ways, Puccini is a throwback to these early frontier respites.
Five miles west of Rocky Gap Resort and State Park on Interstate 68, the Cumberland restaurant, famous for its wood-fired pizzas, offers modern-day wayfarers and locals alike Italian and American cuisine accentuated by the cozy charms of an old manor house nestled beneath the brow of the Allegheny Mountains.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the house, built by Revolutionary War hero Colonel William Lamar in 1818, served as a Civil War hospital for both Union and Confederate soldiers in the aftermath of the Battle of Folck’s Mill, which was fought practically in the restaurant’s present-day parking lot.
If so inclined, ask general manager Heidi Cutrer, or one of her staff, for a copy of the battle history, as well as a tour of the third-floor attic, where etchings made by wounded soldiers are still visible on the plaster walls.
“It’s unique,” Cutrer says. “You can have a conversation. A lot of parents turn dinner into a history lesson for their children.”
Formerly JB’s Steakhouse, Puccini, named after Italian composer Giacomo Puccini, opened in 2006. After nearly 200 years, limited structural changes to the main building have allowed each dining area to maintain its own intimate personality.
“At the same time,” Cutrer explains, “you have to make people feel like they are at home in order to make them feel comfortable.”
On the first floor, posters for Puccini’s operas La bohème and Madama Butterfly adorn the walls of the Calabria and Toscana rooms. Across the hallway, Lucca, adjacent to a small bar (appropriately named Piccolo), showcases vintage black-and-white photos depicting the story of Cumberland’s brewing, glassmaking, and railroading industries.
During warm weather, the verdant vistas and rolling waters of Evitts Creek can be taken in from the patio and front portico. While a private dining room sits on the second floor, all rooms, including the patio, are available for group gatherings.
Arguably, Puccini’s most popular hangout is underground. Open Friday through Sunday, “Sotto” (Italian for “below”) was once a root cellar. Original brick floors, exposed walls, and hardwood ceiling beams give this bar/dining room a rustic, casual atmosphere.
The lower-level is also home to Puccini’s antique brick oven, where its much-heralded pizzas are forged. With an array of fresh toppings to choose from, the thin-crust pies, made with homemade dough, come in many varieties—buffalo chicken being the top seller.
Pizza’s not the only game in town, though.
Puccini’s expansive menu runs the gamut, from appetizers and soups (the homemade cream of crab is considered the area’s best) to salads and sandwiches (including the bruschetta burger, a half-pounder topped with fresh mozzarella, diced tomatoes, basil, and a balsamic glaze).
Among the steak, seafood, and pasta entrées, scallop tortellini—tossed in a made-to-order pesto cream sauce—is another must-try dish. And your sweet tooth certainly will be stung by the bee-sting cake, an enormous hunk of homemade, custard-filled yellow cake topped with walnuts.
Can’t decide what to order? Jim Beattie can help. The Cumberland resident pops in several times a week on his way to and from mountain-biking excursions at Rocky Gap.
“This is my place away from home, so to speak,” he says. “I can come here without even thinking about it. The car knows the way.”
The bleu moon shroom (grilled portabella topped with sliced tomatoes and blue cheese), chicken Caesar pizza, and grilled pork chop rank high on Beattie’s list.