Cucina Urbana – Italy in Southern California

Oh Cucina Urbana, how I love thee.  My husband and I were fortunate enough to stumble upon this Banker’s Hill gem after a meeting with our Mortgage Broker one evening.  Getting into Cucina Urbana without a reservation is like showing up at the dentist without an appointment.  We got lucky this first night and they had a table available in their atrium that we gladly accepted.  The ambiance at Cucina is farm to table, vineyard, backyard, inside of a barrel, knickknack, homegrown, casual while still feeling a bit fancy.  (That was a mouthful I know.)  Brought to you by the Urban Kitchen Group, Cucina Urbana is not just an amazing restaurant but a wine shop as well, boasting a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence.  By definition this is an Italian restaurant but, as their website states, “California inspired”.  My favorite part of Cucina is that they focus on using organic and local wherever possible; and have a commitment to seasonality and sustainability.  I should note that the construction of the restaurant followed the same focus, using sustainable and reclaimed local materials.  It’s just fantastic.  I have been to Cucina Urbana three times in the last couple months and eagerly await my next visit.  In the meantime, I’d love to share my experiences thus far.

The service here has been above par every time.  From the hosts to the servers, to the bussers, everyone is attentive, friendly, and knowledgeable.  You feel well taken care of while hanging out and noshing in this airy yet cozy space.  There is the atrium area, near the host stand, with hightop tables and a dining room with assorted sized tables and community tables.  There’s the bar where you can enjoy the full menu, and they have the Pizza Counter where you can dine while observing all the action that goes on in front of their hustling, bustling pizza kitchen.

Beverages

The cocktails here are inventive and creative without making you feel like you have never had a proper drink before.  They have about eight house-made infusions that change seasonally and if I had it my way I would try each and every one they ever come out with.  Here’s a teaser: Blood Orange & Pineapple Rum, Vanilla Bean Bourbon, and Rosemary Watermelon Vodka.  I mean c’mon!  They say not to mix your liquor, but who are “they” anyway and what do “they” know???  From the martini list I’ve had the Mango Picante which I was very concerned would be too sweet for me but our server assured me that they don’t do “too sweet”.  She was right; it was the perfect combination of vodka, Mango puree, jalapeno and agave; a hint of natural sweet and a little kick that burns your lips, in a good way.  Another night I noticed a “Zero Proof” Lavender Lemonade on the menu and since I’m a huge fan of Lavender I had to have it.  But I wanted it charged, if you know what I’m sayin.  They obliged and added a healthy dose of vodka, making it into an amazing cocktail!  The infusion of Lavender was perfect; herbaceous and floral without being soapy.  I could drink this every day of summer, or just every day.  This should be on the menu if you’re listening Cucina!

To Start

The burrata and roasted garlic confit served in a mini mason jar and with  “Tuscan toast” was so simple; forcing the you to focus on what’s really important here.  The burrata, pillowy soft and oozing it’s cream, topped with sweet and pungent garlic cloves swimming in their own juice.  It’s like finding a treasure as you dig in with your knife, getting the perfect amount of each to spread on the bread and devour.  Two types of bread came with this dish; one soft and one beyond crunchy that we didn’t like at all.  Truth be told, I ended up just eating the cheese and garlic off my knife towards the end.

The burrata addict that I am, I go for the Burrata and Prosciutto “Caprese” to satisfy my second addiction to heirloom tomatoes.  The bottom of the chilled plate is lined with paper-thin slices of prosciutto, some of that heavenly burrata, and a scattering of rocket, basil, nicoise olive, and Rosso Bruno Tomato.  A delicious pork vinaigrette has been spooned over the salad, with an aged balsamic for acidity.  The salad is a beautiful marriage of peppery greens, sweet tomatoes, creamy cheese, salty pork and olives.  Very well done.

Another time we decide to try the Ricotta Gnudi that come bathed in a sage brown butter; topped with crispy fried sage and airy shreds of Parmigiano.  The little spheres are soft as cashmere inside, with the tiniest bit of crispy barrier to break through.  Made from 100% cheese it’s a miracle how they end up on the plate in such perfect orbs.  The only thing missing in this dish is the salt.

Every night at Cucina there are different options to choose from to create a “Formaggi” and/or “Salumi” board.  On a particular visit we were intrigued by the formaggi selections and decided on four to taste.  It was a beautiful story of three Italians and one American.  A Caprino Cremoso Al Tartufo Nero (Piedmont, Italy) was a soft young goat cheese with black truffles; the Lagrein (Northeastern, Italy) was the cow’s milk steeped for five days in red wine and spices; the oh so decadent, pungent, and creamy Robiola a Tre Latti (Piedmont, Italy) named for its combination of cow, sheep, and goat’s milk base; and the Rollingston Chevre (Parma, Idaho) perfumed with anise and lavender.  All are served with a delicious grape compote, dried fruit mustardo, pear, whole grain mustard, nuts, and honeycomb.  Quite a treat, and an adventure when you get to pair each cheese with different condiments for each bite!

Another item that changes daily, based on seasonality and availability, is the Polenta Board.  On the evening that I order it, the Ragu served with the polenta is a White Wine Braised Oxtail with fennel.  The waiter arrives at the table with two small sauce pots and a board.  He proceeds to scoop the freshly made polenta onto the board and creates a well along the center; then scoops the rich oxtail ragu over the polenta.  I can’t say that I have ever had oxtail braised in white wine.  It’s almost as if the oxtail I have had in the past was masked by the red wine that it’s braised in because this oxtail reveals it’s gaminess in a most delightful way.  It’s hearty and light at the same time.  The ragu is delicious and completely outshines the polenta, which on its own is lacking the richness that a bit more butter, cheese, and cream could have provided.

Main

The pizzas at Cucina are just as amazing as you would imagine them to be.  Freshly made and topped with delicious treats like guanciale, fennel, brie, housemade mozzarella, and of course the option to add a farm egg to any of them.  Let the record show that my husband is now addicted to adding farm eggs to his pizzas.  The Pan Seared Sea Bass is served with its crunchy crispy skin atop a bed of fingerling potatoes and celery root puree then finished with a salad of shaved fennel and tangerine.  The fish cooked to a perfect moist center and seasoned pleasantly; the fennel and tangerine rounding out the plate and creating harmony with each bite.

One evening my husband decides to try the CU Burger.  How could he not with a description of braised short rib, fiscalini cheddar, honey mustard aioli, and truffle fries??  It was outstanding.  The short rib tucked away nicely inside the ground beef patty and tasting slightly like BBQ sauce, the cheese oozing onto everything, a bun that didn’t steal the show, and those truffle fries!  Be still my heart.

On our most recent visit, I decided to try the Parmesan Panko Crusted Eggplant since it is served with Farro, which I love and don’t see on many menus.  This dish is my favorite so far.  It arrived at my table looking beautifully bright, crispy, and oh so fresh.  Four thick eggplant medallions coated in panko, fried to golden delicious, resting on just barely cooked summer squash, and that elusive farro.  My initial thought was, “Wait, where’s the sauce?”  In a NY accent naturally.  But let me tell you, this dish don’t need no stinkin’ sauce!  The farro is mixed with sweet summer corn, dressed in an acidic vinaigrette which must be spooned over the eggplant as well because I can taste it in every single fabulous bite.  So many textures, colors, and flavors on this plate and they all come together like it’s just meant to be.

The End

Too many times at a restaurant you have an amazing meal and see something on the dessert menu that gets you really excited; only to be let down in the end.  So many restaurants drop the ball when it comes to the one thing that’s going to be burned into your mind about their food; the last thing you eat before you walk out the door!  Well Cucina Urbana knows better!  I’ve only had two desserts here, but they were both spot on.  The Tiramisu served in a mason jar, the lady fingers soaked through with rum and surrounded by a dense sweet cream.  The Bittersweet Chocolate Budino a smooth custard with a crunchy salted chocolate cookie surprise at the bottom.

There are so many amazing things to say about this restaurant and I’ve already said so much.  I encourage you to check out their website, and even better yet to make a reservation for yourself.  They book up at least a week in advance so plan ahead.  And for all of you OC peeps, they will be opening a spot at the Irvine Spectrum later this year; Cucina Enoteca.

I love this restaurant not just because their food is conceptualized and executed well, but because they also are mindful of where the food is coming from.  They treat the ingredients with respect and it comes through on the plate.

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