The desire to ‘go home’ and nostalgia for simpler times is a strong recurring theme in everything from the classic literature of Proust and his beloved madeleines to pop culture in kids movies like Ratatouille where the cynical food critics’ heart is melted by food so good that it reminded him of his grandmother’s cooking.
I had a ‘going home’ moment last week when I realized that ‘It’s Italian – Cucina’ on South Lamar, open only since September of last year, is owned by the same folks that were responsible some of my favorite Austin Italian restaurants in the last thirty years. These were restaurants that I really loved, like the modest but amazing ‘Café di Roma’ at Lincoln Village to trendy wonderful places like Girasole in the old warehouse district back in the early 2000’s.
A few years later and with several other ventures behind them, a recurring theme for owner Sharabella and Chef Al Fini seems to be creating places that provide high quality and skillfully prepared food in environments where diners genuinely feel like friends.
Together with a group of Chefs and other staff that have moved with them for years at different venues, they have again created a restaurant that will generate a following of new customers and make many old customers happy.
I spent two consecutive evenings watching waves of diners being greeted like old friends and at the end of their meals saying goodbye to Al, Sharabella and her staff with the heartfelt promise of coming back soon. The friendly vibe was evident when It’s Italian Cucina’s first (and frequent diner Olivia) sat next to me at the bar and was kind enough to share some of her fresh clams with linguini. I returned the favor and shared a decadent chocolate cup filled with honey-scented mascarpone, topped with wild Amarena cherries – instant friends over great food.
It’s Italian Cucina features northern Italian cuisine. Many dishes are from the Piedmont where both Al and Sharabella are from originally; these includes dishes like Agnolotti, small ravioli-like pasta filled with veal and served with sage butter, and Fettuccini al Tartufo, using Piedmonte’s famous truffles. The menu also includes perennial favorites like Milanese Osso Bucco, Risotto and Genoese classics like Linguine con Vongole (fresh clams).
The Menu is set up in true Italian fashion with Antipasti, Insalata e Zuppa (soups and salads), Primi Piatti (first courses), Secondi Piatti (main courses), Contorni (side dishes), Fromaggi (cheese plates) and of course Dolce (desserts). Additionally, there is a ‘Tour d’Italia’ Tasting menu – Four courses with wine pairing for an amazing $50. The tour regions change periodically and favor dishes as fresh seasonal ingredients become available.
Al, who is responsible for the menu and buying side of the house, sought vendors that could provide deliveries seven days a week. He purposely has a very small walk-in fridge, preferring to purchase fresh what he can use as is needed.
One helpful part of the restaurant’s business model is that many items are available for sale in a small market area in the back devoted to Italian favorites including some difficult to find Italian wines.
The restaurant’s wine selection includes thirty-eight wines by the glass, interestingly five on tap, and nearly one hundred and fifty by the bottle covering most regions of Italy.
On a few visits, I satisfied a deep love for Osso Bucco which is a tender veal shank, slow roasted simply with tomatoes, garlic, and herbs and served with pasta or traditionally risotto.
Most recently I opted for the Tasting menu (with a few additions). If like me, you think you hate anchovies, you need to try acciughe bianco; these are mild, delicate anchovies that are perfect with just a squeeze of lemon.
For my second appetizer, I selected the Proscuitto e Melone – 18 months aged, delicious Prosciutto from Parma served with honeydew melon and drizzled with aged balsamic with a touch of herbs. This was paired with a Firriato Branciforti Grillo 2016, a bright white wine from Western Sicily. The wine had a medium/ full body and a mild minerality reminiscent of a French chardonnay.
My Primi Piatto (first course after the appetizers) was a traditional Spaghetti Carbonara alla Romana. This was served al dente with a beautiful cream sauce of Pecorino Romano, egg and pancetta. The pairing was a Jermann Pinot Noir 2012 from Friuli-Venezia Giulia – the wine growing region northeast of Venise.
Like in Italy I find the Secondi Piatti a bit overkill, but Al manages the portions, so the whole does not leave you uncomfortable.
My main course was Vitello Como – Veal cutlets pounded thin, breaded and served with a simple white wine sauce with tomatoes and onions. This was paired nicely with a Bibi Graetz Casamatta Sangiovese from Tuscany. Though Sangiovese can be quite heavy, this was relatively light, with cherry and plum fruit up front and light tannins.
Lastly, I selected a Taza di Cioccolato – a chocolate cup filled with mascarpone and wild cherries (imported from Emilia-Romagna) – this will remind you of a cherry cordial, but far less sweet and terrific with a Santa Margherita Brute Rose from the Veneto.
As good as this ‘tour’ was, my first question to Al was when the next tour would be on the menu as I was looking forward to another round of great combinations.
At It’s Italian Cucina, the end of the meal could be an excellent espresso, cappuccino or perhaps an unusual Port-styled wine made from Barolo, what will be likely is a visit or two from Sharabella or Al to make sure the meal was perfect.
By Richard Arebalo
OTL Features Editor