I find it endlessly satisfying that I can go out my front door, walk a few blocks, and have a truly wonderful meal. This is what we know as the experience of a good New York neighborhood restaurant. It’s not terribly fancy, like Bouley or Jean Georges. But it’s a definite cut above an average diner or a pizza joint. You eat there often enough to know the menu by heart. The food makes you very, very happy.
When I moved from Manhattan to Park Slope six years ago, I assumed I had entered the land beyond good neighborhood restaurants. Things were happening in other neighborhoods, especially on Smith Street in Carroll Gardens. But in Park Slope, even on 7th Avenue, it was mostly bland diners and Chinese takeout.
Two long years went by, and then al di la trattoria opened. If ever there were a Platonic ideal of a good neighborhood restaurant, al di la is it. There’s the tile floor, rustic tin ceiling, flowered wallpaper, mismatched china and silverware, the dramatic red velvet curtain at the entrance and co-owner Emiliano Coppa’s grandmother’s crystal chandelier from Venice. The service is sweet, attentive, and knowledgeable, and Coppa himself greets his guests himself at the front with gently sweet conviviality. But best of all is the sumptuous food inspired by Veneto, the area outside of Venice. The chef is co-owner Anna Klinger, formerly of Lespinasse and currently married to Coppa.
During al di la’s first two years I went through a long phase in which I ordered the rabbit in a thyme and olive sauce every time. My addiction can be partly attributed to the savory and tender rabbit. But the main draw is the polenta it’s served with, the creamiest, most luscious I’ve ever had. It is made with yellow cornmeal, butter, milk, and Parmesan. “Polenta is nursery food,” a Northern Italian dining companion once sniffed, before he finished every last bite. I think that pretty much sums up its appeal.
Another of my favorites is the beet ravioli. It is as visually striking as it is delicious, a sweet, intensely vermilion filling inside an almost translucent pasta with a buttery poppy seed sauce. Also lovely is the salt-crusted sea bass, which is presented to you in its salt-encrusted glory before boned for your more civilized consumption. The risotto is notorious for being more than worth the 20-minute wait. And the calves liver makes me forget why I ever hated liver as a child.
I assumed I had discovered al di la and had it all to myself until everyone else started talking about it. It received a glowing review from the New York Times shortly after it opened. When Amanda Hesser pounced on their swiss chard malfatti (a kind of gnocci) just this past November, I was both vicariously flattered at the attention for al di la, and also a little indignant—now I’ll have to wait even longer to get in, since the place doesn’t take reservations (call about 10 minutes before you arrive, though, and they’ll often hold a table for you).
Unlike al di la, Cucina was not love at first sight for me. Anthony Sciccitano first opened its doors 15 years ago. It soon gained a reputation as one of the finest restaurants in Brooklyn. Finest as in fancy. And fancy it was, in the same way a pinky ring is fancy. The food was good, but not extraordinary. Portions and plates were outsized, which even then seemed a little gauche. There was a lot of dated-looking glitz and shine, with a showy seafood tableau you were led past on the way to the dining room. It seemed cartoonish and tacky, and so after my first time I abandoned it for the young Turks on the avenue.
And then I heard about the big changes at Cucina this autumn. Mark Strausman had replaced Chef Michael Ayoub, and the restaurant had been renovated. Strausman has previously been at Campagna and Fred’s at Barneys, and last year opened his own restaurant, the short-lived Chinghalle. At Cucina he scaled down the menu to simple, satisfying Tuscan home cooking. There are few frills, and the flavors are clear and the portions generous (without being ostentatious). There are antipastos, fresh-made pastas, expertly cooked fish and meats. And there’s also “EYE-talian” cooking, as I call it—easily recognizable classics that anyone from Ogden, Utah would recognize: lasagna, veal parmigiano, and tiramisu.
The décor is simplified and restrained as well. The walls are mustard and sienna with mint green trim, and there are sienna banquets and cool mint green molded chairs, crisp white table linens. Cucina still uses the same large, personalized china, but they don’t seem quite so outsized in the new context. As far as I can tell, the transformation has been a success. Cucina is now a solid family neighborhood restaurant.
Mr. Sciccitano now greets you at the entrance of Cucina. His pleasure at the entrance of every single customer who enters the door is apparent, but then he will also stroll the restaurant, seeing to everyone’s comfort and enjoyment. He flirts and teases, and while my husband and I were examining the menus he chided my husband for not paying more attention to me. “Why are you reading that? Why aren’t you looking at your beautiful girl, here?” He is old-fashioned and corny (and he exaggerates), but is charming enough to get away with it.
Reflecting on my meal at Cucina, I see a pattern: an expertly cooked and flavorful item played against a very plain background of a second item. I understand that a dish should have primary and secondary notes, but the secondary notes could be kicked up a little in flavor. In the gamberoni alla griglia with fagioli en fiasco (grilled shrimp over a white bean and tomato stew) the gigantic shrimp is smoky and rich. The backdrop is a very subtly flavored white bean stew. The antipasto di terra sets rich, thin-sliced eggplant with parsley, button mushrooms, peppers, and caramelized onion against nicely al dente but almost flavorless green lentils, chickpeas, and white beans. In the grilled homemade sausage with broccoli rabe, the sausage is pretty standard, whereas the broccoli rabe is wonderfully sweet and garlicky.
The balsamic glazed pork chops with onion confit were among the menu’s successes, however. At first sight, the large chop seemed buried under the balsamic and onion sauce. Too much sauce, I muttered, just as Mr. Sciccitano was walking past. But the generously cut and perfectly done chop is substantial enough to take all of this sauce. The balsamic sauce is sweetly mild and textured with the onion. It also flavors the mashed potatoes served on the side. The side of spinach is somewhat bland, and would have benefited from similar treatment as the broccoli rabe. Otherwise the entrée is fantastic.
Cucina’s tiramisu features well-soaked fingers under an almost too large mattress of fluffy marscapone. For some reason they gilded the lily by shaving milk chocolate over it. I would have preferred the traditional dusting of cocoa powder, or at least bittersweet shavings, but it’s easy enough to knock them off the mountain and enjoy the tiramisu for its own traditional self. In case there’s not enough cream happening on the main stage, the dessert is served with a dollop of cream on the side, over a chocolate biscuit.
If you remember Park Slope when it was wilder and rougher—if the toned-down décor and simplified Italian home cooking has you worried that Cucina has lost its eccentricity to the MacLauren-toting yuppies, just think of Mr. Sciccitano greeting you at the entrance in a well-cut Italian suit, winking at you and slapping your date on the shoulder. It’s still a long ways from the Olive Garden.
Velez is a food blogger based in Brooklyn, NY.