North Raleigh has been the beneficiary of the Barresi familys hospitality since a young Vincenzo Barresi opened Vincents in 1990, giving it the same name as the restaurant his grandfather had opened in 1929 in New Yorks Little Italy. Barresis father, familiarly called Pop, has long been known for handing out cookies to children at the family-friendly pizzeria, and his mothers 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 Vincents 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. Theres 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 menus ambitious promise more often than not, though inconsistency is more of a problem than it ought to be nearly four months after the restaurants 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.
Its 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 Chiusis 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 Vincents fans that New York-style pizzas are among the most reliable options at Cucina di Milano. The pies havent been immune to the occasional underdone crust, but consistency appears to be improving.
No doubt it will continue to improve, given Vincenzo Barresis track record. Barresi is aware of the growing pains at his new restaurant, and makes no bones about the fact that hes eager to make it worthy of his familys reputation.
Clearly, hes not just paying lip service to that reputation. On Cucina di Milanos 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.