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The Gossiping Gourmet: Cucina Enoteca's decor and food hit high notes

November 20, 2012|By Elle Harrow and Terry Markowitz | By Elle Harrow and Terry Markowitz
  • Stuffed fried squash blossoms, an antipasti dish, is prepared with herb ricotta, purple basil pesto and cured lemon aioli at Cucina Enoteca in Irvine.
Stuffed fried squash blossoms, an antipasti dish, is… (KEVIN CHANG, HB…)

There are several new eateries in the ever-evolving entertainment center that is the Irvine Spectrum. One of the hippest is Cucina Enoteca, just across the courtyard from the Cineplex.

As you approach the restaurant, the first thing you see is the inviting large patio with a fully grown tree providing shade for one side of the expansive outdoor eating area. As you enter the cavernous indoor space, you are actually in their wine store, with racks of bottles providing the décor and a bar/dining area on one end and a long communal table nestled between the shelves. It's a great place for a private party.

Continue on to the main dining area and you will find yourself in a room with a 30-foot ceiling with exposed ductwork. The attractive room has a very contemporary feel, even though the theme of the décor is repurposing rustic old stuff combined in a modern way with a lot of whimsy. For example, the ample dining chairs are white leather on the inside and burlap sacks on the outside, old barn wood lines the walls, three antler chandeliers plus various inverted wire baskets provide the lighting, and an old meat scale dangles from the ceiling in one corner. Go to the ladies' room and you'll find a whole wall decorated with an arrangement of old washboards.

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Two open kitchens allow you to see pizzas coming out of the wood-burning ovens and chicken sizzling on the rotisserie.

The cuisine is Italianesque. In keeping with the theme, one section of the antipasti menu called "vasi" features small Mason jars containing spreads like olive tapenade, chicken liver paté or smoked salmon mousse. Our antipasto was fried squash blossoms stuffed with their house-made herb ricotta (they also make their own mozzarella), served with purple basil pesto and cured lemon aioli. They were perfectly fried in a thin tempura-like batter but the stuffing was bland with no herbal aftertaste and virtually no salt. Luckily, the pesto and the lemon mayo woke things up a bit.

From the Neapolitan pizza menu we chose an odd one. It was honey-roasted eggplant with balsamic-marinated onions, pistachio pesto, pine nuts and a little crumbles of herbed goat cheese. The combination of ingredients was not felicitous, although the honey-brushed eggplant was very nice. It needed more goat cheese to balance the sweetness of the onions.

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