Go crazy: Cucina Pazzo offers a twist on Italian

Cucina Pazzo – Photos by Yana Hotter 07.jpg

By Margi Lenga Kahn, Special to the Jewish Light

Cucina Pazzo (Italian for Crazy Kitchen) opened in  space previously occupied by the legendary Duff’s in the Central West End. The restaurant, the fourth from the OG Hospitality Group that also brought us Tavern Kitchen and Bar in West County, offers diners a good option for solid Italian fare with a contemporary twist.

Renovations include exposed brick walls and a state-of-the-art open kitchen. Wooden tabletops, created from repurposed warehouse pallets, and attractive pendant lamps add to the warm, urban-chic ambiance.

A second dining room, large enough to accommodate a private gathering of up to 52 guests, is equipped with a raised, flat-screen television. However, if the show you’d rather watch is of the culinary sort, choose a stool kitchen-side, where you can see the chefs in action. Seating also is available in the bar area.

After placing our order, we were treated to a pan of the restaurant’s version of “Italian butter,” a thick, dark and delicious mixture of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, oregano, basil and garlic. This is accompanied by a cast-iron minipan of warm, house-made focaccia. A glass carafe of icy cold water sits on every table. 

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From the antipasti section of the menu, we tried three dishes: ricconi ($9), olive tapenade ($6), and escarole ($8). 

The ricconi consisted or three fried ricotta balls accompanied by a mild and tasty marinara sauce and garnished with flash-fried basil. The ricotta balls were crisp yet light, and the basil was a brilliant addition. The dish is served with a couple of discs of pepperoni, which can be omitted.

The tapenade featured two thick-cut toasts layered with creamy ricotta cheese and a zesty kalamata olive tapenade. It was garnished with a fresh grapefruit filet and a light sprinkling of spearmint. The flavors in this dish – assertive winelike olive tapenade, sweet-citrusy zing from the grapefruit and mildly seasoned creamy ricotta – were perfectly balanced.

The salad was composed of slightly bitter yet mild escarole greens tossed with halved grape tomatoes, thinly sliced red onion, shaved fresh fennel and cucumber strips. It was served with a buttermilk-based kalamata-olive dressing. Once again, the combination of flavors was harmonious.

For our side, we chose spinach with mushrooms, peppers, and onions ($6). The spinach was wilted and slightly crisp, just the way it should be. The sautéed onions, mushrooms and red pepper strips were a tasty addition.

Our pasta dish, butternut squash mezzelune ($11), consisted of house-made half-moon-shape raviolis filled with a light, butternut squash puree and drizzled with a sage-infused brown butter sauce. garnished with finely grated amaretti (Italian cookies). The pasta was prepared al dente. I needed to add freshly ground black pepper to liven up the flavors, which were a bit too bland.

From the piatti pazzo (main courses) section of the menu, we chose swordfish salmoriglio ($26) and beef tagliata balsamico ($21). Both were spectacular. 

The fish, marinated and grilled, arrived on a bed of delicately sautéed spinach accompanied by halved fingerling potatoes lightly bathed in olive oil and a light sprinkling of salt. With its beautifully hatched grill marks, it was tender, moist and flavorful.

The grilled flank steak, thinly sliced at an angle, arrived as ordered: medium rare. Tender and juicy, it was topped with balsamic caramelized onions that melted in my mouth.

Accompanying this dish was an arugula salad lightly dressed in vinaigrette, and the same fingerling potatoes served with the swordfish. A thin, tangy, buttermilk cream dressing was pooled on the side for dipping.

Desserts on the menu number just four. The two we chose were so different from each other and the servings so ample, they made up for the limited selection. 

Lemon ricotta fritters ($7) consisted of five fried ricotta balls that were lightly sprinkled with powdered sugar. They were served with two luscious and contrasting dipping sauces: tart lemon curd and sweet blueberry conserves. The three golf-ball-size fried orbs were ambrosial and surprisingly light with a dense crumb. 

A chocolate Nutella soufflé was served in a gratin dish and topped with a scoop of stracciatella gelato (chocolate chip) and a dollop of whipped cream. The soufflé was rich and decadent and had the two chocolate addicts at our table swooning with each bite.

The restaurant offers a nice selection of white, red and sparkling wines by the bottle and glass (with the house red and white at $7 a glass). The menu also features beers (by each bottle and on tap) and five specialty cocktails. A full-service bar also is available 

Cucina Pazzo also makes an effort to accommodate dietary restrictions, including for those seeking vegetarian and gluten-free items. 

Six children’s meals are $10 each and include a sundae for dessert. 

We were seated within minutes of our reservation, and the hosts, servers and kitchen staff were friendly and knowledgeable. 

Executive Chef Justin Haifly does a nice job of combining various elements in a single dish without masking the uniqueness of any one ingredient. We look forward to dining again at Cucina Pazzo.