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First Take: Cucina Neighborhood Italian

Photos by Lauryn Bodden
Photos by Lauryn Bodden

Though a couple months have passed since the opening, Cucina Neighborhood Italian continues to make the appropriate changes to make it a home for friends and family in search of “comfort food with a casual atmosphere and attentive, professional service,” describes Ben Crosland, Managing Partner Cucina. The menu at Cucina is rustic Italian featuring pizzas, pastas and grilled fare. Last night I was invited to sample a few dishes.

Wait, isn’t that place called Mi Piaci?
After two decades in Dallas, Mi Piaci shuttered its doors last spring, which allowed Cucina Neighborhood Italian to take over, but not without a fight. We reported on the debacle between the two owners last May. A sign on the door claimed Mi Piaci’s Brian Black failed to pay rent forcing the landlord to change the locks. However, Black reared back with a vengeance and a different side to the story. Whatever the truth is, Cucina welcomed the neighborhood to its cuisine May 27 and seems to be on the right track to becoming a University Park favorite.

So what changed?
Though menus between Mi Piaci and Cucina appear similar at first glance, Cucina offers a more refined selection of classic Italian dishes with a more modern twist. Obvious changes include décor, management, service, and attention to detail in the food. The elegant interior offers guests an intimate experience with dark wood tables, warm red and clean white wall finishes, black metal frame chairs, a dramatic black banister leading to a more private upstairs, and a backdrop of jazzy music. The restaurant has two floors, two bars, two outside patios and two spacious dining rooms as well as a semi-private dining room upstairs. The upstairs patio features a retractable roof so it can become completely enclosed or open for al fresco dining. For me, the most notable aspect to any restaurant is service. They can make or break an experience for me. I felt Cucina was extremely inviting and attentive throughout my time.

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Do I care?
If you want a location to round up the family, a place to gaze into your date’s eyes over bites of tiramisu, or just a good spot for classic Italian that won’t disappoint, then yes, you definitely care. This isn’t just another knock-off Olive Garden with a new paint job and different name. You’ll want to check this place out.

Who’s there?
The crowds vary from older couples to young twenty-somethings to boisterous families. Picture a place with romantic, candle-lit atmosphere perfect for date night that offers the same prime setting for a big group to get rowdy over a couple bottles of wine. The space is big enough for both parties to enjoy their night and not make the other feel uncomfortable.

What do I wear?
The simple, yet sophisticated kitchen invites you at your worst or at your best. Patrons are encouraged to dress up for a fancy night out or keep it casual with shorts and flip-flops, but let’s keep it civilized. I’m pretty sure they enforce that “no shoes, no shirt, no service” rule.

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What do I order?

If I could tell you to order one of everything and keep passing the plates, that’s what I would do. However, I realize that’s unrealistic. Order a round of appetizers such as the decadent risotto cakes with a crisp thin crust, cold asparagus & prosciutto that boasts vibrant flavors of balsamic and capers or fried tomato caprese that manages to be light yet so sinful. Enjoy the Spaghetti Nero for its interesting presentation and rich chili butter. Fun fact: the pasta gets its black color from squid ink. Vegetarians and carnivores alike will shovel down the Portobello Puttanesca that comes with zucchini pappardelle and a traditional puttanesca sauce of anchovy paste and capers. You can even substitute the portobello steak for a more meaty option of chicken or fish. Nevertheless, I loved the fresh sea bass. Seared with a crisp crust, the buttery fish is everything I need with the lemon-basil-asparagus risotto. As for dessert, I want it all. The peach sorbet is like you’re digging into an actual peach. The tiramisu is smooth with the expected Italian coffee finish. But, the ‘Kool Breeze’ cheesecake is like nothing I’ve had before. It manages to be light and airy, which makes me believe it’s only half the calories so I should clearly eat double the amount (I am very naïve when it comes to sugar).

Price?
Affordable. Well-executed food at the right price point that won’t bust the bank.

What else should I know?
Chef Mark ‘Kool Breeze’ Sims gets his name from how well he dressed when he was younger. He was a fly kinda guy, and he definitely hasn’t lost his flair through the years.

20 comments on “First Take: Cucina Neighborhood Italian

  1. Haven’t tried this place yet…but l will soon!
    Very glad to hear Chef Mark is at the helm.

  2. Was intrigued right up until “keep it casual with shorts and flip-flops.” Not the “refined” Italian I’m looking for.

  3. Finally! This place is outstanding….Wanted to keep it a secret for myself, but great food should be enjoyed! Local establishment with great drinks and food in my backyard should be shared. Cheers Cucina…Nicely Done! See you Sunday for Brunch.

  4. The organic farm to table ingredients, house made breads and pastas daily, and fresh sea food keep me coming back. There are many healthy as well as sinful choices on the menu, You can eat clean, vegan and gluten free or splurge on a delicious steak or seafood and pasta meal. Cucina is fresh and simple which is why it’s so delicious!

  5. Matt – The article actually says “Patrons are encouraged to dress up” then follows with casual attire is also completely acceptable, is how I read it. I don’t think anyone is implying beach attire! I have had to wear flip flops (there are many current stylish and very nice popular brands) all summer with my dresses and skirts due to a surgical procedure so I’m just wondering if you saw me out, would it ruin your dining experience?

  6. Check out their brunch, it is amazing! Try the Eggs Benedict. I’m dreaming of that heavenly drizzle of hollandaise sauce – going back for brunch next week! YUM.

  7. Oh if only you guys knew the whole sordid MiPiaci tale. The rent issue is only the tip of the iceberg.

  8. The Spaghetti Nero looks like a dish from Indiana Jones: Temple of Doom. #pass

  9. The vegetarians I know (myself included) wouldn’t “shovel down” anything made with anchovy paste.

  10. This restaurant is not a neighborhood favorite. It was empty last weekend. We were one of five tables all night. Food was mediocre at best. Some of the staff was friendly while our server had no knowledge of the food. Drinks were watered down and pricey.

  11. Tell me about it. Worked there for a bit,
    No business, no money and ownership is vile.
    Sleazy attorney lives up to her reputation.

  12. Why is everyone jumping on the hate wagon? Not every restaurant opens with a celebrity chef or celebrity owner to a packed house every night. Some places have to grow organically. Some have to use a grass roots marketing and pr campaign to build their customer base. Why does everyone in this town want to write off every restaurant or business that’s not packed to the gills every minute of the day? I have eaten here a few times now– were they really busy, no. Was the food really good- yes. Was our server good- pretty good. Were the prices right for the neighborhood- yes. Try to focus on food, service and atmosphere- and not worry about flip flops.

  13. All in all our dinner was average at best.
    My date and I expected it to be so much better after your review. There are so many better
    restaurants for Italian food than Cucina.
    In addition, parking is difficult

  14. This restaurant will not last. The location is horrible, the food is inferior and the staff is unprepared.

  15. This place has average food, subpar service and no vibe. Obviously, you had to exaggerate how great your meal was because you ate for free. For a paying customer there are many better options in our neighborhood for better food at better prices.

  16. We had a group there last night for TX/OU. The food was mediocre, our waiter was slow and inattentive and the manager was too busy flirting with the hostess. A total disaster… I bet this place will be gone next year when we return for the Red River Shootout. GO OU!!!!