If you want a reasonably-priced Italian meal or a bar that is great for people watching in Preston center check out Cucina Neighborhood Italian. The cozy spot has been open under its current ownership and culinary team since May and, although we reviewed their menu for the Restaurant Week period, we had not sampled the regular menu until now. At a media event this week we got the chance to get a comprehensive look at the regular menu and get a feel for the ambiance of the place.
First, you are going to find familiar red-sauce Italian comfort food on the menu here at prices that make it viable as a regular neighborhood spot for dinner. The lunch menu is an abbreviated version of dinner, with a ‘$10 lunch’ section that features a sandwich and/or salad with a drink. A kids menu makes it family friendly, and a Sunday brunch menu departs the Italian theme for what might be called ‘Eggs Benedict Mainstream’. The restaurant features a full bar and wine list.
Although the menu items have a familiar ring, there is a greater emphasis on sourcing and provenance than you might expect for this price category. For example, look for heirloom carrots among the salads. A vegan colleague dined at our table and the restaurant delivered a parallel menu without routine delay and at a level of creativity that piqued the interest of non-vegans. For example, the spinach salad below was both visually appealing and organoleptically engaging.
It wasn’t as though omnivores suffered, however. An asparagus and prosciutto salad topped earthy grilled asparagus with slices of salty prosciutto and wisps of cheese. Drops of balsamic provided the palate-tingling acid component. The Fried Tomato Caprese ($12) that followed arranged rings of breaded fried tomatoes (not green in this case) alternately with slices of creamy buffalo mozzarella and fresh basil, all enlightened with the same balsamic drizzle as the previous dish into a leaning tower of Pisa of culinary comfort flavors.
Pasta dishes are a strong suite here. Try Spaghetti Nero ($19) for a distinctive squid-ink black pasta dressed with shrimp and concassé tomatoes with garlic in what the menu described as ‘pico’. Chile butter corrected the wet-dry balance, resulting in a dish that was one of the most popular of the evening.
Tagliatelle Bolognese ($13) was a flat pasta variation on the traditional spaghetti bolognese. Regardless of the topography of the pasta, a bolognese dish is always about the bolognese sauce and Cucina’s is first-rate. Simultaneously creamy and comforting, it has those fully resolved flavors you extract from long cooking.
Our vegan did well with this course too. She got an artichoke pasta with basil that had distinctive flavors as well as a gloriously earth-toned appearance.
Main courses of Chicken Marsala ($14), Portobello Puttanesca and Fresh Sea Bass ($25) were all successful and, since my restaurant week visit, the cheese cake and the tiramisu desserts have both improved.
Executive chef here is Mark ‘Kool Breeze’ Sims who, in name and nature, might have been a blues player in another life.
With homey interior decor, two levels and two patios Cucina is likely to become popular for locals, date night, after work happy hour parties, and families at Sunday brunch. Complimentary valet parking is available, although I really like the proctological route in (the door at the back on the second floor that goes directly to the inside parking lot).
For value and an attempt to go above the norm Cucina Neighborhood Italian is Crave Recommended.