Americans have an unhealthy obsession with Italian cooking: Unhealthy not only because the American interpretation of boot-food features an excess of mozzarella, Parmigiano-Reggiano and meat, but also because Italian American is one of the most popular imported cuisines. The pizza served stateside may bear little resemblance to the rounds served in Napoli, but what kid in the history of kids doesn't appreciate a giant, floppy slice? Just about anyone would swoon at the sight of a pot of tomato sauce slowly simmering, while lasagna noodles stacked high with ricotta and meat sauce warm in the oven. Italian American is appealing because we've made it our comfort food.
Catering to these red sauce cravings, Italian American restaurants are everywhere, serving from the same playbook of loose adaptations handed down for generations. Chicken Parmigiana heaped with marinara and melted cheese, fettuccini alfredo made with no less than a quart of cream -- these dishes have been interpreted so many times they cease to be Italian. Instead, they are fuel for regular Friday night meals out and birthday celebrations. Adults that grew up dining at Campisi's, Sal's and Scalini's here in Dallas eventually take their kids to do the same.
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Which can make things a bit tricky when a new Italian American restaurant opens its doors. Diners already have their favorites; any restaurant with tiramisu on its menu is competing with lifelong memories of packed, circular booths. Remember the time uncle Ronnie had too much Chianti and hit on the waitress, or when cousin Annie accidentally snorted out a whole strand of spaghetti?
Cucina Neighborhood Italian hopes to create more of these lasting memories. It opened last year at the Preston Center address formerly occupied by Mi Piaci, which quickly went under. Before that, Ocho Kitchen and Cocktails endured an equally brief tenure. If Cucina intends to last longer than its predecessors, it will have to rethink its use of the multi-level dining room to avoid customers feeling isolated while they dine.
Walk into Campisi's on Mockingbird Lane when the sun is high and you'll be blind until your eyes adjust to the impossibly low light. Where meatball lovers expect cozy, dark dining rooms, Cucina delivers a massive L-shaped bar, ample seating downstairs and a second large bar flanking another seating area on the floor above. A heated patio offers even more tables, and the grays and whites and other cool tones that dominate the color scheme seem more appropriate for a club. Generously spaced tables only add to the cavernous and lonely atmosphere, even on a Friday night.
And the cooking doesn't help matters; many dishes are fraught with goofy missteps. The cutlet for a chicken Parm is cooked perfectly, with a brown crust and tender, juicy interior, but it's covered in a watery sauce that puddles at the bottom of the plate. That same sauce is simply ladled over the linguini. If the cooks had taken the time to properly mix the two, much of the pasta wouldn't have gone undressed, highlighting noodles completely devoid of salt. The same issues plague the spaghetti, embellished with meatballs so overworked they would bounce if thrown out onto Preston Road.
But the problems at Cucina go beyond food quality and execution. Penne alla vodka ordered with sausage arrived without any pork, the first of several service issues. On another night, a side of spinach didn't arrive at all. I was less disappointed by that oversight when the spinach did arrive the next night, scented with burnt garlic. The wait staff isn't rude or discourteous -- they just seem checked out and undertrained -- but that's all it takes to send customers back to their mainstay Italian restaurant. Especially after they've suffered through dry arancini, rubbery calamari and ... are those nachos on the menu?
Not all of the food is subpar. During my first meal at Cucina, I was served the best fried ravioli I've had in my life. They were the size of saucers, packed with so much light and fluffy ricotta they almost split at the seams. Fried mozzarella "cheese stix" -- golden batons the size of candy bars -- presented the same excess. They would have been fun if they'd arrived hot, with each bite pulling ropes of dairy, but they were only warm.
Twenty bucks is a reasonable price for a dinner plate at many restaurants, but it's at the high end of the spectrum for a neighborhood Italian spot. The veal scallopini was prepared well enough, but a customer might expect more than a few scrawny morsels of meat at that cost. And Dallasites have proven they'll pay more for a plate of pasta, but only when the ingredients and cooking back those prices up. I passed Carbone's, which is known for its upscale take on casual Italian cooking, on my way to another quiet dinner at Cucina. The Highland Park restaurant had a line out the door, proving Dallas could actually use a few more Italian American restaurants capable of turning out high quality, familiar pasta dishes. A meal like that seems unlikely at Cucina, unless there are significant changes made.
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SHOW ME HOW
During my last meal there, I ordered a dessert with a side of gelato, which had an icy consistency that gelato should not have. It was so strange that I asked my waiter to verify the dish was gelato. "Did you notice it has ice in it?" he asked me, to which I said yes. "That's because we make it here ourselves," he said, practically beaming.
When an execution error is passed off as a feature out of ignorance, it's a good indication that the restaurant has more issues hiding behind the pass. Ice crystals are poor form in almost all frozen dairy products, and gelato is especially known for its velvety smooth texture and concentrated flavor. But the scoop set on my table was thin and vapid. It only suggested vanilla flavor and tasted more like ice milk than a decadent frozen dessert. Cucina needs to create better memories to send their customers home with at the end of a meal, if they want to see them again. Anyone that has ever twirled pasta against a spoon at a restaurant that charms with its age, grit and crappy knock-off painting of Sinatra would have a hard time coming back.
Cucina Neighborhood Italian 8411 Preston Road, 214-468-4674, cucinadallas.com, 11 a.m. - 4 p.m., 5 p.m.- 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m. - 4 p.m., 5 p.m.- 11 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. -3 p.m., 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m. -3 p.m., 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Sunday, $$$
Toasted ravioli $9 Cheese stix $7 Spaghetti and meatballs $12 Veal scallopini $20 Chicken Parmesan $15