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Review: Cucciolo Osteria’s authentic Italian cuisine worthy of a culinary love affair

Cucciolo Osteria’s truffle tajarin presents as thin, egg-rich noodles flecked with black truffle.
Cucciolo Osteria’s truffle tajarin presents as thin, egg-rich noodles flecked with black truffle. jleonard@newsobserver.com

Dear Cucciolo,

Forgive me if I’m being too forward in declaring my feelings for you so soon in our relationship. (Dare I call it that? It was mere weeks ago that we first met, and we’ve only seen each other twice so far.) But I like to think I have reason to hope that the feeling is mutual. After all, it was you who first uttered those three little words that I longed to hear.

Those words are “the Roman way.” They were right there on your menu, describing your linguine alla carbonara.

I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve been lured astray by the promise of that dish at other restaurants, only to have my heart broken by sham versions that cheat with cream. We both know that cream has no place in an authentic carbonara. Your menu description was a coy promise that you would not let me down.

Oh, how you kept that promise, my dear Cucciolo. Let me count the ways: Al dente pasta, firm but supple in a sauce created by a raw egg cooked by the heat of the pasta. The salty umami of pecorino romano. The earthy funk of guanciale. And the finishing touch, the essential spice note — just a bit of black pepper.

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Cucciolo Osteria serves a variety of bruschetta including roasted grape bruschetta with creamy goat cheese and toasted walnuts, basil tomato with homemade ricotta, burrata and roasted hazelnut with truffle honey and the exotic-sounding baccala mantecato. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Our time together has been all too brief, but it has been enough for me to discover that your charms are not limited to linguine alla carbonara. Or even to pasta, for that matter, though your tagliatelle al pomodoro (ah, that vibrant sauce of fresh tomatoes!) and truffle tajarin (those thin, egg-rich noodles flecked with black truffle!) have shown me that you have just as deft a hand with fresh pastas as with dried.

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And my breath still catches when I recall your risotto al latte, creamy pearls of risotto cooked in milk, rosy petals of prosciutto scattered across the top.

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Cucciolo Osteria’s porchetta is a pork belly rolled around seasonal herbs and nuts and slow roasted. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

I close my eyes, and your many other delights begin to parade across my imagination. There’s a small plate of prosciutto di San Daniele with mozzarella mousse and crispy gnocchi fritti, a playful exploration of flavors and textures. And arancini, delicately crisp orbs of deep-fried, lightly breaded rice with a creamy filling of butternut squash, paired with a spicy aioli for dipping. And a rustic chicken liver paté with sage, fetchingly presented in a small jam jar, with olive oil-drizzled rounds of toasted baguette alongside.

Your roasted grape bruschetta with creamy goat cheese and toasted walnuts is oh-so-Italian, and such a refreshing change of pace from the usual bruschetta offering. I can’t wait to explore your other variations — maybe burrata and roasted hazelnut with truffle honey next time, or the exotic-sounding baccala mantecato (creamed hand-shredded salt cod) if I’m feeling adventurous.

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My compliments, my dear Cucciolo, on your wise decision not to to overextend your kitchen, especially in the months just after opening in late July. Your offering is brief but broadly appealing, with just three listings under the Secondi heading (though I understand you’ll be introducing a new, slightly expanded menu in January that will include a fresh catch of the day).

I haven’t yet tasted your beef tagliata (sliced New York strip steak with arugula, shaved parimigiano Reggiano and 12-year aged balsamic), but I have sampled your other two entree offerings. I hope you’re not offended when I say I found the breading on your butter chicken (“brined chicken double cooked in butter”) a bit too thick and dense, though the breast itself was lusciously buttery. I was thoroughly bewitched, on the other hand, by your porchetta, (“pork belly rolled around seasonal herbs and nuts and slow roasted”), which was oh-so-tender.

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Cucciolo Osteria’s coffee-soaked ladyfingers are nestled between layers of marsala-sweetened mascarpone in a pillowy, cocoa-dusted tiramisu. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

And oh, what can I say about your sublime sweets? Only that choosing between your silky panna cotta and your coffee-soaked ladyfingers, nestled between layers of marsala-sweetened mascarpone in a pillowy, cocoa-dusted tiramisu, is exquisite torture.

As long as I’m baring my soul, I should confess that my first impression of you — based, I’m ashamed to admit, on nothing more than the spare lines and industrial chic decor of your narrow, high-ceilinged dining room — was that you were cool and detached. How happy I was to discover that, beneath all that warehouse brick and exposed beams, beat a heart full of passion for good food. And that the passion was shared by your attentive and knowledgeable wait staff.

I hope you’ll understand, dear Cucciolo, when I tell you that I’ve asked around about you. I hear you have three sisters in South Korea. The oldest, also called Cucciolo, is a tiny 20-seat restaurant whose name (Cucciolo means “puppy”) is a nod to its size.

You were given that same name (and a similar menu) by your owner, chef Jimmy Kim, whose cousin owns the restaurants in South Korea. There’s no denying it’s a cute name for a restaurant, one might even say fetching. But, as I hope I have made clear, my feelings for you go deeper than mere puppy love.

Hungering for our next encounter,

GC

Cucciolo Osteria

601 W. Main St., Suite C, Durham

984-243-8744

cucciolodurham.com

Cuisine: Italian

Rating: 4 stars

Prices: $$$

Atmosphere: industrial warehouse chic

Noise level: moderate to high

Service: attentive and knowledgeable

Recommended: pretty much everything, but especially the pastas

Open: Dinner Wednesday-Monday. Note: Cucciolo Osteria will be closed January 1-8.

Reservations: strongly recommended (15 seats at the bar are reserved for walk-ins)

Other: full bar; accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection; limited parking in the lot in front of the restaurant, additional parking on street and in nearby garages.

The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: 5 stars: Extraordinary. 4 stars: Excellent. 3 stars: Above average. 2 stars: Average. 1 star: Fair.

The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.

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