Nick LaCava and Robert Prunetti took over Cafe 72 March 17. (Staff photo by Diccon Hyatt.)

One day it was Cafe 72, the next day it was Nick’s Cafe 72, and if you were a lunch or breakfast patron of the restaurant, you might not have even noticed the difference when the changeover happened March 17. Three of the employees were the same and except for new ingredients, the breakfast and lunch menus were mostly the same. The sign hasn’t even changed yet.

But dinner is a different story. New chef Nick LaCava has made big changes, and hopes to establish the BYOB, located at 72 W. Upper Ferry Road, as a casual dining destination.

“Dinner, we re-did completely,” he said. “I grew up in Chambersburg. I want to re-create the food I grew up with.”

LaCava, of Hamilton, is a Culinary Institute of America grad who has been in the restaurant business for 25 years. He previously owned Martini’s in Hamilton and was the chef at Vidalia in Lawrenceville. LaCava is the nephew of former Mercer County Executive Robert D. Prunetti, who bought the restaurant. Prunetti said the goal in hiring LaCava was to up the restaurant’s evening ante.

The menu now features traditional Italian recipes as well as some of LaCava’s own creation. New items include Steak Frites which is thin-sliced steak with frizzed onions and Belgian fries ($17); Pork Chops Giambotta, with peppers, potatoes, onions, sausage and cherry peppers in a garlic and olive oil sauce ($17); and Cavatelli Roberto, which is pasta with shrimp, spinach and mushrooms tossed in garlic and olive oil ($17). Prunetti said the new menu has been popular so far, attracting young couples from the neighborhood who like to walk to the restaurant with a bottle of wine and settle in for an evening of European bistro-style dining. The next step is to attract more of a late-night crowd, Prunetti said. To that end, Cafe 72 is hosting jazz on Thursday nights and is looking to expand its entertainment offerings.

The restaurant closes after lunch and reopens in the evening with table linens and a more upscale atmosphere.

Prunetti said he believes that the economic recession won’t cause people to stop going out to eat, but may make them go to less fancy restaurants. Cafe 72 is aiming at that niche, he said.

In addition to re-vamping the dinner menu, LaCava added a Trenton-style Italian hot dog to the menu. He said it’s just like the one he used to make when he worked at the Casino restaurant Trenton: it consists of a hot dog on a torpedo roll with potatoes, peppers and mustard.

The other lunch sandwiches are around $7 and come with fries and cole slaw.

LaCava said he also upgraded the ingredients.

The cafe might also appeal to those who have an interest in Mercer County politics. Prunetti, who was county executive from 1992 to 2003, has spent the last five years in the private equity business and working as a consultant for companies dealing with the government. He said during these years, he had always harbored the ambition of starting a restaurant. Prunetti, who lives on Windy Bush Way in Ewing, said he was also fond of the local cafe and jumped at the chance to buy it when it came on the market.

Prunetti said that of all his recent endeavors, starting a restaurant is the most similar to politics. “I’m enjoying this thoroughly,” he said. “I’m getting to see some people I haven’t seen in a while.”

Cafe 72 is open Monday through Saturday 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and Sunday 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Tuesday through Saturday 5 to 9 p.m. They accept credit cards and offer delivery as well as take-out service. For more information or to order food, go online to cafe72nj.com or call (609) 882-0087.