Dining review: Barresi family expands with Italian eatery in Morrisville

CorrespondentDecember 19, 2013 

  • Cucina di Milano

    1106 Grace Park Drive, Morrisville


    Cuisine: Italian

    Rating:* * 

    Prices: $$-$$$

    Atmosphere: refined but casual, family-friendly

    Noise level: moderate

    Service: variable

    Recommended: calamari, cozze in bianco, gnocchi, pizza

    Open: Lunch Monday-Saturday, dinner nightly

    Reservations: accepted

    Other: full bar; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; patio; parking in lot

    The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: * * * * *  Extraordinary * * * *  Excellent. * * *  Above average. * * Average. *  Fair.

    The dollar signs defined:$ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

North Raleigh has been the beneficiary of the Barresi family’s hospitality since a young Vincenzo Barresi opened Vincent’s in 1990, giving it the same name as the restaurant his grandfather had opened in 1929 in New York’s Little Italy. Barresi’s father, familiarly called “Pop,” has long been known for handing out cookies to children at the family-friendly pizzeria, and his mother’s tiramisu continues to be a favorite. The restaurant survived a fire and relocation in 2005, and continues to thrive.

But when a New York-based investment group offered Barresi the opportunity to open a second restaurant in Morrisville, he knew he wanted to try something different.

Still Italian, mind you. And certainly not as offbeat as Vino and Maré, the two previous restaurants in the Grace Park space the partners were eyeing, both of which had offered quasi-Italian menus before disappearing quicker than you could say “sea urchin spaghetti.”

What Barresi had in mind was something a bit more cosmopolitan than his other restaurant, but still drawing freely on his Italian-American culinary pedigree.

To that end, he developed a menu that incorporates Vincent’s pizzas and a few favorite pasta dishes, but frequently reaches across the Atlantic to the Old World for inspiration. He gave the dining room a look to match, at once casual and refined in shades of ocher and sea foam.

And he gave his new restaurant a name that reflects its style. Barresi opened Cucina di Milano in August.

Pastas, many of whose names evoke romantic Italian locales (lobster ravioli Fontodi, gnocchi Favara, pasta Calabrese with cauliflower, green olives and almonds) are the foundation of the entree offering. There’s a create-your-own option, too, allowing you to mix and match pasta, sauce and “enhancements” such as grilled shrimp, meatballs and Italian sausage. Pizzas, panini and Italian-accented sliders (meatball parmesan, grilled eggplant and the like) round out the offering.

The kitchen lives up to the menu’s ambitious promise more often than not, though inconsistency is more of a problem than it ought to be nearly four months after the restaurant’s opening.

One night, an order of pasta Chiusi – “shrimp and scallops in a creamy sun-dried tomato sauce over spaghetti” – is marred by gummy, clumped-together pasta. A few days later, spaghettini – a thinner and thus in theory more challenging pasta to cook properly – is gratifyingly al dente in a house-made marinara. But the boneless breast of organic chicken it accompanies is overcooked.

It’s tempting to look for a pattern to explain the inconsistencies. The pasta station is the weak link, say, or the fry station. Or maybe the kitchen is just having an off night.

None of those theories holds water. Pasta Chiusi’s disappointing showing follows on the heels of a solidly executed starter of eggplant “cannoli” stuffed with prosciutto, ricotta and parmesan, and baked under a slathering of tomato sauce and melted mozzarella.

The same night as the mixed-bag presentation of organic chicken and spaghettini, the kitchen turns out a plate of tender, lightly battered calamari. Cozze in bianco are fine that evening, too, the clams plump and fresh in a garlicky, parsley-spangled white wine broth that begs for some bread for sopping. Unfortunately, the dry, balsamic-drizzled wedges of focaccia that accompany the dish are not the ticket.

On the other hand, homemade potato gnocchi – toothsome in a judiciously light pesto cream sauce – merit unqualified praise.

It will come as no surprise to Vincent’s fans that New York-style pizzas are among the most reliable options at Cucina di Milano. The pies haven’t been immune to the occasional underdone crust, but consistency appears to be improving.

No doubt it will continue to improve, given Vincenzo Barresi’s track record. Barresi is aware of the growing pains at his new restaurant, and makes no bones about the fact that he’s eager to make it worthy of his family’s reputation.

Clearly, he’s not just paying lip service to that reputation. On Cucina di Milano’s Facebook page, mixed in among photos of dinner specials and musicians who perform in the restaurant on Friday nights, Barresi proudly announces the appearance of a special guest, who will be in to greet guests: “Pop” Barresi. or

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