LA CUCINA FLEGREA | Food | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper


I was amused by the many admonitions sprinkled throughout the menu -- plates must be split at table; please make reservations on weekdays, but no reservations on weekends; no lingering if diners are waiting & because nothing about dining at La Cucina Flegrea suggested such a firm hand. The service was warm and friendly, and I ate at a relaxed pace.

But I could understand why strong suggestions would be necessary on a popular night. The restaurant, an odd-shaped nook of a back room, couldn't hold more than 30 diners, and with one table for two already in the entryway/kitchen area, there's no accommodation for folks milling about. But I can see their side, too: The freshly cooked Italian specialties are worth waiting for.

While the room is cozy, with an curious mix of knotty pine wainscoting topped by Mediterranean accents (a fisherman's net strewn across one wall has caught several sea creatures), it's no place for intimate dining -- unless your idea of intimate is hearing about someone else's life. But it feels more European café "family-style" than annoyingly crowded; I was comfortable enough that I almost reached right over and helped myself to a neighbor's bruschetta, which looked fabulous piled high with freshly diced tomatoes.

The menu actually encourages lingering, with its categories denoting traditional leisurely Italian dining: appetizers, first courses, entrees and seemingly large side dishes; most are creative dishes favoring Italy's Mediterranean influences. We settled on one appetizer and two entrees but with different complimentary starters.

My companion ordered the soup, which that evening was a thick pottage of squash, celery, zucchini, garlic and pepper, topped with freshly grated Parmesan cheese. It was hearty enough to eat with a fork, and though sweet from the squash, it was spicier than most Italian soups. (I heard my neighbors also commenting favorably on the surprising "punch" of the soup.) Several slices of olive bread -- employed indiscreetly in mopping up -- ensured that not a bit of this soup remained.

I had the salad, testing a theory that the better restaurants can make a plate of lettuce exciting again. The salad was a fine mixture of baby spinach, arugula, buttery lettuce and the requisite cherry tomatoes well invigorated by sweet, tangy dressing combining olive oil, balsamic vinegar, sun-dried tomatoes and fennel seeds, which added the perfect hint of warm licorice flavor.

The fried calamari ($10.50), was prepared simply, the little rings coated in lightly seasoned breading, and served on fresh greens with a lemon half. The fresh-squeezed lemon juice did help counter the oil, though a little grease is the price paid for the nice crisp exterior.

Both our entrees were hot -- and by hot, I mean truly just cooked. My companion's dish, pollo alla Mediterranea ($13.95) was a skinless, boneless chicken breast, smothered in roasted red pepper strips, olives, mushrooms and topped with fresh basil leaves and mozzarella. It smelled sunny and pleasantly earthy, as if it contained all the aromas of an Italian marketplace. The chicken was superbly moist; filling but not heavy. And more bread was requested, so that the leftover seasoned juices could be sopped up and not go to waste.

I declared my chicken dish, pollo al limone ($15.95), to be a dessert, so sweet, tart and succulent was its sauce of wine, lemon and cream: like a chicken breast drenched in a fine lemon liqueur but without the cloying sugariness or the flat aftertaste of alcohol. The accompanying green bean side was more savory, as the young beans had been quickly cooked with plenty of garlic, and remained sweet and crisp. A squeeze of fresh lemon muted the sharpness of the garlic.

The desserts are made on premises, and that night we had one of each on offer -- a tiramisu and a pastiera cake. The tiramisu did not skimp on the proper ingredients (ladyfingers and marscapone), but too much liqueur at the bottom, and too much cocoa powder up top, destroyed the confection's balance. The pastiera, a ricotta cheese and wheat flour concoction, was a simple-looking dessert -- a four-inch high wedge of dense cake without garnish. It had an odd texture, wet yet crumbly, with a flavor that started near "bread" and ended up near "cake." It looked terrifically heavy, but was deceptively light. It was perfect with coffee, and I could have easily eaten a second piece. "This is the underdog of desserts," I explained to my companion. "It's not flashy to look at, traditional yet uncommon hereabouts, deeply satisfying, and really quite delicious." And not unlike La Cucina Flegrea. ***