By Richard Foss (RichardFoss.com)
’ll have no problem giving anyone directions to Venice Cucina — I can just say it’s the place they’ve passed while going anywhere else in the neighborhood. The restaurant is on the traffic circle at Windward Avenue and Main Street in Venice, but because most Americans aren’t really comfortable in traffic circles and watch the road obsessively, they miss it.
That’s a shame, because Venice Cucina is a pleasant little place. The outdoor patio must be nice on warm days, but we opted to go inside on a chilly evening. The wood-paneled interior was warm, as was the welcome from the owner, and we thawed as we mused over the menu. It’s a list of checkered-tablecloth classics — pizzas, pastas, paninis and a few meat and fish entrees. My wife and I arrived intending to get pizza, which they do serve, but a special caught her fancy and I noticed a pasta that is one of my favorites, so we changed our plans.
As we mused over our choices, hot homemade bread arrived. We momentarily wavered in our decision, because any Italian restaurant that makes good bread has the material to make good pizzas, and this was first class. The bread was served with olive oil spiked with garlic and red pepper, a sign that they’re not shy of robust flavors in this kitchen.
We decided to start our meal with melanzane alla Parmigiania — eggplant that is fried and then baked in marinara sauce, topped with buffalo mozzarella and fresh basil. (Since I get this question almost every time I mention buffalo mozzarella, it’s not from Buffalo, New York, but from water buffaloes. The beasts were imported from India to Italy in the medieval era, and their milk has a different flavor from that of domestic cows.)
The eggplant is offered with or without a slice of prosciutto on top of each piece, and we decided to opt for ‘with.’ The slight saltiness and meatiness added to the flavor, but made the dish more difficult to eat since the Italian ham was harder to cut than the soft eggplant. We suggested to the owner that he might want to chop the prosciutto in the future, and he agreed that it might be a good idea. We’d order this again either way, because the eggplant, cheese and rich marinara was a fine way to start a meal.
My wife’s dinner included a house salad, which turned out to be a mix of lettuces with tomato, cucumber, purple onion, olives and garbanzos, topped with mozzarella. The very mild dressing didn’t shift the focus from the natural flavors of the vegetables, which works just fine when the mix is this varied; had it been the usual bowl of lettuce with minimal accompaniments, a more assertive dressing would have been needed.
The entrees came only minutes after we finished the salad — good kitchen timing, but since we were alone in the restaurant that evening and there were only a few take-out orders, it wasn’t much of a challenge. My wife had ordered a special of roasted salmon in a lemon-caper and herb sauce, while I decided on linguine alla puttanesca.
Puttanesca sauce — literally “prostitute’s sauce” — is spicy, cheap, fast and easy. (There are arguments about whether it’s so named because any whore could make it, that whores liked it or that they concocted it to lure in customers, but the term dates back to Sicily in the 1950s.) It has the typical Sicilian ingredients — pasta, olives, capers, peppers and mushrooms, all in a sauce with tomatoes, garlic, basil and a hint of anchovy. It’s a warming, robust dish when properly made, which it certainly was here. I had ordered a grilled sausage on the side just for variety, and though it wasn’t necessary to complete the meal the sausage was a tasty accompaniment.
My wife’s salmon also hit the spot. The fish had a crisp crust of herbs and was topped with capers, lemon, herbs and chopped tomato. It was served with green beans and very good scalloped potatoes — not a side dish I’d expect to find in an Italian restaurant, but who cares when it’s so well made?
We had brought our own wine, since Venice Cucina isn’t licensed (that’s probably one of the reasons why this very good restaurant was empty when mediocre places nearby were full). Although it does take a bit more forethought to bring your own bottle, the restaurant provides glassware with no corkage fee.
We finished with house-made tiramisu artfully drizzled with dark chocolate, which was every bit as good as the rest of our meal. The bill for a sumptuous dinner for two was $70, quite reasonable for a meal with so many artisan ingredients. This great little place deserves to succeed, and I’ll be back to try those pizzas. They’re open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, so whenever I have the time, they’ll have a meal.
Venice Cucina, on the northeast side of Windward Circle, is open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. No alcohol, but corkage is free. Valet or street parking available. Menu online.
Venice Cucina, 209 Windward Ave., Venice (310) 392-6300 venicecucina.com