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A Night of Umbrian Nostalgia in the Catskills

March 6, 2010

As you know, since I am moving back to California permanently,we decided that it would be very romantic and hip of us to go to the Catskills in Upstate New York. For tonight’s dinner, we found a little place called Cucina on my new best friend and traveling ally, Tripadvisor. Thank goodness we made reservations because from the moment we walked in the door, our ears were ringing and our eyes frolicked back and forth between the many bustling waiters and hungry guests. It was crowded. Luckily for us, we were psychologically prepared. Once we found our seats, which by many people’s standards were a little too close to the seats next to us, Ren and I were happy. Our waiter greeted us. He was phenomenal. As someone who has worked in the service industry, it is easy to spot someone who is really conscientious. He was. He not once rushed us in spite of the constant onslaught of hungry customers walking in the door. He started us with some focaccia and olive oil (the oil was high quality and very flavorful).

A little known fact about me is that I lived in Italy for a couple months in the summer of 2007. Actually, I even got to live in a small town in Umbria called Orvieto studying political philosophy. It was an awesome experience, and while there, I  got to taste my first Orvieto wine. Produced in small vineyards around the main plateau of Orvieto’s town center, these white wines also happen to be extremely affordable. A mix in varietals, the Orvieto wines are very dry, with a lot of citrus coming through. However, they have more character than many pinot grigios. They are perfect for a hot summer’s evening or even, for us in the Northeast, the first day above 50. So, you can imagine my delight when I found one on the wine list. The 2008 Palazzone Orvieto Classico was dry, but very flavorful in its middle notes. Hints of hazelnut came through in addition to its oak and lemon.

After choosing the wine, we decided to endulge in an appetizer. We ordered the prosciutto and mozzarella. This was a send back to Umbria where their first course would often be just that, or sometimes they would substitute cantaloupe for the prosciutto if it was in season. The Cucina chef decided that the dish’s rustic purity did not need to be tampered with. It was exactly the way I remembered it in Orvieto. There was chopped fresh basil and a very light drizzle of balsamic vinegar over the top of the mozzarella. Both the mozzarella and prosciutto were very fresh and in whole, the dish was not something you could reproduce without a very high end Italian market. My only complaint was that I wanted to see some new gourmet invention on this very classic dish. It was a clean and delicious dish with fresh ingredients, but there was no risk involved.

After our appetizer, I had the Orechiette with duck ragu and pine nuts. This dish was also a wholesome reminder of Orvieto. While I was there, I had one very much alike to it with truffle and beef instead of duck. The dish was again prepared very well with no sauce and lightly covered with olive oil. Again, it was delicious, but it was safe and a little bland. They had parmesan cheese to sprinkle on it, and I found myself loading it on. It needed more than pine nuts. Ren had the mushroom ravioli with cream sauce. They were amazing. The sauce was not too thick. If I had done it again, I think I would have gotten her dish.

For dessert, she had the creme broulee and I had hazelnut gelato. The hazelnut gelato was okay, but not great. It did not taste like the Orvieto and Roman variety, and I think that was the very thing that I wanted to be authentic.

Thus, I give Cucina a rating of 4 out of 5. It was a lovely place with delicious food. We didn’t mind that it was crowded. That is what shows that you are a good restaurant. However, the .5 that I cannot give the Cucina comes in its lack of ingenuity. In every great dish there is a love affair between tradition and a Chef’s creativity. This restaurant is as authentic Italian as you can wish to find, but in it, the Chef’s individuality is lost. With but a twist of his pallet, the Chef at Cucina could easily turn this Woodstock, NY destination to a true Italian cuisine legend.

– Chris

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