All Grown Up 

Cucina turns 21 with a new chef, wine selection and more.

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Back before you could find high-quality imported pastas, olive oils, vinegars, spices and the like in local supermarkets, there were a handful of specialty markets that I frequented for such foodstuffs. Granato's, Caputo's, Liberty Heights Fresh and Cucina were among them.

Popular cookbook author and culinary educator Marguerite Marceau Henderson opened Cucina in the Avenues back in 1995 with her business partner, Eileen McPartland. It was both a deli and a café, in which Henderson operated the kitchen while McPartland ran the store and retail side. I remember going there when it was the only place in town selling fresh caviar. In 2001, Henderson and McPartland sold the business to then-manager Dean Pierose—and, to be frank, the quality of the food and service ebbed and flowed somewhat in subsequent years. But with the recent addition of a very talented young chef, the introduction of a tantalizing dinner menu and a schedule of monthly wine dinners, Cucina has turned a corner.

Most people are probably familiar with Cucina as a deli/café. Since the beginning, from-scratch salads and sandwiches have been its mainstay. And, as the saying goes, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Classic deli items like the slightly sweet, scrumptious curried chicken served over mesclun greens are so popular that customers would likely riot if they were ever 86'd from the menu. All of the specialty salads—including grilled Thai beef; tortellini with salmon; niçoise; caprese; grilled veggies and portobello; etc.—are priced at $8.94 each, which includes fresh bread from Stone Ground Bakery.

Side salads come with a Stone Ground baci roll, and are available in 8- or 16-ounce portions for $3.29 and $5.99, respectively. The Mediterranean chicken salad with orzo, artichoke hearts, feta cheese, mint and sundried tomatoes drizzled with lemon dressing is wonderful. But my favorite of their salads is also one of the simplest: The Tuscan, featuring white cannellini beans tossed with tuna chunks, red onion and celery in a lemon-herb dressing. It's divine.

Sandwiches make up most of the balance of the daytime offerings, and include breakfast, made-to-order deli and an array of specialty sandwiches. I was skeptical, frankly, about the meatloaf sandwich ($8.48). After all, who ever heard of a meatloaf sandwich with mozzarella cheese, sliced tomatoes, fresh greens and vinaigrette on a kaiser roll? But an employee told me that the meatloaf was "amazing," and so I tried it. I have to admit: It is as amazing as it is unconventional. Melted fresh mozzarella really works with the delicious homemade meatloaf, and the greens, vinaigrette and housemade ketchup helped moisten the flavor-packed creation.

The caprese sandwich—fresh tomatoes, mozzarella, basil, greens and balsamic vinaigrette on focaccia—has become a go-to item for my wife, and I'm partial to their gourmet panini, made with turkey, Swiss cheese and avocado, plus chipotle mayonnaise to impart a Southwestern snap. The only real miss I've encountered among the sandwiches is the Italian combo. The fillings are excellent: high-quality capicola, mortadella, Genoa salami, provolone, minced pepperoncinis, thin-sliced red onion, tomatoes and fresh greens with a delicious housemade vinaigrette. The problem is the bread. I expected something along the lines of a hoagie or sub roll. Instead, the it's served on a fairly dense, rustic, seeded baguette that overpowers the fillings with sunflower seeds, cracked wheat, flax seeds, oats, barley and rye. Sometimes less is more.

A few months ago, former Log Haven Sous Chef Joey Ferran joined the team and kicked things up a notch. Ferran has tons of talent, belying his young age. My prediction is that you'll be hearing a lot about him. Pierose has largely let Ferran take over the dinner menu, which in turn has allowed Cucina to become more than just a deli. You can still get all of the tasty deli items in the evenings, but the nighttime dinner menu offers fine-dining flavors at less-than high-end prices.

There's a lengthy selection of small-plate offerings—some 14 or so—priced from $6-$12. The small plates include such items as mini Rueben sandwiches made with braised pork belly, saffron risotto arancini with chorizo, pan-fried yakisoba noodles, ahi tuna poke, and baby heirloom beets with pickled fiddleheads and mustard seeds.

I'd never heard of polenta fries ($6), so naturally I had to try them. Somehow, Chef Ferran manages to get polenta mixed with fontina and Parmesan cheeses to coalesce enough to deep-fry rectangles of them. They come out looking like golden Jenga blocks, and are served with a zippy chili-spiked marinara. Call me a polenta fry convert.

Another terrific small-plate option is the "Duck & Seeds" ($10). Fanned slices of smoked, boneless duck breast are served atop chili oil and greens, with a terrine of homemade sriracha mustard and another filled with toasted black and white sesame seeds alongside. The idea is to dunk the duck pieces into the mustard, then the seeds. The result is spectacular, elevating smoked duck into something ethereal. However, if there's a single can't-miss dish, I recommend Ferran's stupendous orange- and honey-brined game hen, roasted to perfection and served with delectable einkorn wheat gnocchi, wild mushrooms and lemon-thyme jus.

But wait, there's more! At a recent wine dinner, Pierose told me that in addition to the almost-done new décor, he is "rebranding" Cucina as a wine bar. He's got some 90 or so wines with around 50 of them available by the glass. And by the way, if you have the opportunity to attend one of their wine dinners, by all means do so. The informal, unstuffy affairs are a lot of fun, with great food, wine and lots of laughter.

More than two decades into its run, this restaurant is more appealing than ever.

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