You can’t help but notice the great alfresco seating as you enter Irvine’s Cucina Enoteca, open since December. A metal pergola frames the olive branches that shade two roomy, kick-back patios within earshot of a splashing fountain, a fine setting for summer feasts of chopped
vegetable salads, salumi, and cheeses by the platter, washed down with bountiful glasses of chilly rosé.
Then we walk and walk into the cavernous dining room, to a table near the open kitchen. It’s damn cold, so no outdoor dining tonight. The kitchen’s metallic roundelay, the happy hum of the near-full room, and my talky compadres shift my focus to the task at hand—perusing a large single-sheet menu that’s a Byzantine anthology of dishes and drinks. On the antsy waiter’s third try for an order, we select beer and a bottle of wine to keep him occupied.
We start with one vasi (jar) and some antipasti items. Minutes later the table is laden with fried squash blossoms, frito misto, and a mini-Mason jar filled with chilled gorgonzola walnut mousse, alongside toasted bread green-gold with olive oil. Overly cold, the cheese spread warms while we dive into the piping-hot fried fare. Crunchy batter and mouth-filling ricotta eclipse the blossoms’ fragility. A swipe through a dribble of pesto and lemon aioli only further quashes them. A mix of sizzling calamari, shrimp, cauliflower, and asparagus makes for tasty dunking in caper-studded aioli. Light and not greasy, the pale, tempuralike batter is scented with truffle oil, a cliché gesture from a kitchen that surely knows better.
A chopped-vegetable salad with yellow beans, cucumber, and tomato is clean and simple, a palate cleanser of sorts. Classic Margherita pizza with house-made mozzarella doesn’t set the bar terribly high in this day of artisan pizza worship. Cracker-crisp throughout, it lacks the complexity and primal aromas of wood-fire cooking. The eggplant, goat cheese, and pistachio toppings get a kiss of caramelization from honey-roasting the eggplant. On Thrifty Thursdays, one of many day-of-the-week specials, pizzas are half-price from 5 to 6 p.m.
Pastas are a sweet spot on the menu. The shapes are wisely paired to their sauces, and many are made from scratch. Pointy curls of cavatelli cradle a gentle sugo of new garlic and fresh sorrel that also blesses morsels of gutsy duck confit; shavings of ricotta salata supply a salty tang. Risotto carbonara in a deep bowl is nice and hot, the better to cook a daffodil egg yolk that needs only a few swirls to incorporate. Yes, the raw, fresh peas throughout don’t thrill me (I’m a carbonara purist), but chewy, porky pancetta sets the precisely stirred rice just right.
Pappardelle with braised short rib and creminis is robust and rustic, a fill-the-belly peasant classic. Bucatini all’amatriciana is properly spicy with a fatty chew of house-cured guanciale and enough tomato and onion to keep your taste buds up for the next bite. I hear raves over the ricotta gnudi (gnocchi made of ricotta) in browned sage butter, but these six balls are chewy, gluey, and taste slightly raw. I’ll try again, but not without a back-up dish.
Brandt Farms rib-eye boasts a deep char with a near-red warm center. Carved into thick slices, the well-trimmed meat looks lean but brims with intense savory beefiness. A side salad of artichoke, watercress, and pecorino easily outshines the mealy potatoes splashed with a wan green herb sauce; they’re billed as roasted on the menu, although I can’t taste why. Grilled Berkshire pork with cider reduction is a great chop, plump and luscious, with an entourage of braised cippolini onions and sweet apples. “Burnt” Brussels sprouts is a side I cannot leave alone, the crispy edged sweet green buds soar with flavor when swirled in a fiery orange sauce with a vaguely creamy texture. They should bottle and sell the stuff.
Upgrades and sales pitches appear alongside various menu items: Mason jar spreads to-go, add $3; upsize salads to a family-style portion for $10; fennel sausage on any pizza for an extra $1.50. A small loaf of fresh focaccia is $2, or $6 if you add the pesto go-with.
And then there are the shelves of wine for sale that on close inspection reveal many rows of duplicates for a not-so-vast selection. Keep in mind that wine list prices don’t reflect the $8 corkage fee. So add that if you plan to drink it with dinner.
All this hustling seems tame after being told that many of the restaurant’s eccentric, hand-hewn furnishings also are for sale (price list at the hostess station). Those comfy barrel chairs? $306.
Lulu De Rouen, who captained Pinot Provence after a stint at West Hollywood’s Fig & Olive, is chef de cuisine. Here, working under executive chef Joe Magnanelli of Urban Kitchen Group in San Diego, her menu is a near copy of Cucina Urbana, the older sib in that city. At this high-volume 285-seat house, De Rouen’s merry moxie is tough to detect through all the layers of staff and corporate folderol.
Still, she helms the huge kitchen well, and already is working on creations for the forthcoming rotisserie. Cucina Enoteca is a promising player on Irvine Spectrum’s massive stage, a newcomer with lots of good fare and plenty of appeal. I’m booking my alfresco summer table weeks in advance, and I’m sure I’m not alone.
Salumi trio, gorgonzola mousse, frito misto, chopped salad, baby beet and ricotta salad, risotto carbonara, ricotta cavatelli with duck, bucatini all’amatriciana, short rib pappardelle, Brussels sprouts, Brandt Farms rib-eye, Berkshire pork chop, seasonal fruit tart, affogato.
Starters, $6.50 to $14.50; pizza and pastas, $13 to $19; entreés, $16.50 to $29.
Patio, weather-depending; four-tops in dining room center; “trough” table for large parties.
Reservations are limited to off-peak times, so walk-ins should expect to be sent to the bar to await a table.
Wines sold in the “market” are decent values to go; $8 corkage to open at your table.
31 Fortune Drive, Irvine, 949-861-2222, cucinaenoteca.com
Photograph by Priscilla Iezzi
This article originally appeared in the June 2012 issue.