notes from the road: cucina urbana

This was a lesson in karma.

As is often the case when foodies travel, Isa and I booked our hotel in ten minutes. Then we spent the next ten days languishing over all the restaurants we wanted to squeeze in during our 48 hours together in San Diego. Second breakfast exists outside of the Shire, right?

Cucina Urbana was everything we could have hoped for. We both love Cal Italian and a great bottle of wine. Cucina had both – the wine list was extensive enough to please a table divided by the New World/ Old World vineyard debate. The restaurant shuns ridiculous bottle markups, opting to sell theirs at the retail price, plus an $8 corkage fee. This fantastic idea makes a world of a difference, and it’s not even the best part.

Say it with me now: ricotta gnudi.

Isa and I stared at each other, thinking, Are we really eating this? It’s a good thing the portion came in even numbers. Neither of us is particularly violent, but I suppose there is a first time for everything. Gnudi is essentially naked ravioli. Prepared with significantly less flour than gnocchi, gnudi are pillowy clouds of ricotta goodness, covered in sage brown butter, parmesan and amaretti. I don’t remember what else we ate, but those ricotta gnudi have a permanent home in our food memory banks.

Which is why I was only too pleased to announce brag that I would be returning to THAT restaurant during an overnight stay in San Diego. This is exactly how we refer to Cucina, as “THAT” restaurant. After a week of burgers and Wasa crackers in dusty Yuma, I was ready to treat myself to a night out.

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There was a time in my life when I swore I would never drink out of a martini glass. If the drink ended in -ini, I wasn’t having it. I could never keep my hand steady and just didn’t see the point of drinking from stemware that was setting me up for failure. I’ve matured (a bit) since then, and thankfully so. The Socialite (limoncello, vodka and housemade vanilla bean syrup) was a smooth way to start my meal. Still, I preferred the “Italian Screw” (vodka, orange, grapefruit and housemade ginger beer) even more. Have I mentioned how ridiculous I feel ordering drinks with names? Yes, we’ll each have an Italian Screw please. Thank you.

I knew I was ordering the gnudi, but what else? I was sick of meat, didn’t want another pasta dish, so, I did something rather shocking for me – I ordered the pan-seared Atlantic cod. I have nothing against fish, I’ve just never been one to order it while out. I felt pleased with myself for ordering what seemed like a well-balanced meal – so pleased that I stopped my server before she got too far and also requested the burrata and roasted garlic confit vasi. A mini mason jar filled with housemade burrata? No brainer! I asked for a recommendation for a medium-bodied red by the glass and took the server’s suggestion to try the Cabernet Sauvignon from Myuge Vineyard in Napa Valley. Another big step for me – I’m on team Old World.

A server (not my original one) announced the glass as he set it in front of me. I nodded and smiled, and as the glass almost touched my lips, I stopped myself. Did he just say Pinot Noir? My server must have seen me staring down my glass, because she rushed over to apologize, explaining they had run out Cabernet by the glass. Per my request, she thought the Pinot Noir was the next best option. I don’t know what I was thinking – I hardly ever drink Pinot Noir! One sip reminded me why. Too acidic! How is this an alternative to the Cabernet? While I appreciate my server’s intentions, she should have asked if I was alright with this option before serving it.

The gnudi and vasi came out together, which would have been okay if 1. I wasn’t eating alone or 2. I had the sense to start with the hot plate first. You can’t put a cheese plate, especially burrata, in front of me and expect me not to dive in head first. Which is exactly what I tried to do. So often, a restaurant forgets the crucial step of bringing burrata to room temperature, but not Cucina Urbana. It was ooey and gooey (I went to private school for my vocabulary) and ran into all the nooks and crannies of my Tuscan toast. The garlic cloves, sitting in a small dish of olive oil on the side, were sliced, smushed into my cheese and shoved into my mouth. You can do that when you’re taking yourself out on a Friday night.

Halfway through the burrata, I turned to the poor, neglected gnudi. I’m here, I still love you, I thought, bringing the fork to my mouth, ready to relive the former dinner of glory here with Isa and imagining all of the ways I’d tell her she had missed out on an amazing meal (nevermind that she was dancing her way through Rio de Janeiro that night). Wait a second. Why is the ricotta sticking to the roof of my mouth? Why does my entire mouth feel like it’s being smothered by gnudi? This can’t be right, this is not the gnudi from my food memory! I took another, just be sure. Again! I stared at the pan of gnudi that remained and felt betrayed. I had come for the gnudi, and this is how I was being repaid? Was it my own fault for letting them sit too long? Or was the gnudi having an off night? I powered through 3 more, leaving the last one as a testament to my disappointment. And then I went back and cleaned out my jar of burrata.

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After a beautifully seared cod, I opted to forgo the dessert and finish dinner with my most beloved cappuccino. After days of waking up before the sun and operating without any caffeine, I was ready. And it was burnt. Oh, was that coffee burnt. I could smell it before I tasted it. The server took it off the bill, but if I was an emoticon sort of girl, this is where I would insert a sad face. Luckily for everyone here, I am no such girl.

My highly anticipated return to Cucina Urbana certainly had its high points and its low points but I would still wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone visiting San Diego. My meal may have had hiccups, but perhaps that’s the universe’s way of telling me to stop flaunting my culinary opportunities in the face of a friend thousands of miles away. I’d like to say “lesson learned”, but that’s highly unlikely.

Cucina Urbana is located at 505 Laurel Street (on the corner of 5th Ave) in San Diego, California.

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