Italy… from head to toe

16th Sep

This visit to Cucina was actually my second in about three months. My first was for Phil Ascough’s popular supper club in April, when the place was packed with businesspeople who’d pre-ordered from a set three-course menu that the staff were busily ferrying to each table in quick succession; the “so, what do you do?” and “good to see you again” chat made for a loud, but cheery, hubbub.
On the Tuesday night in August that I and BW’s MD Helen arrived at Cucina, the ambience was rather more subdued. It was early evening and there were only a couple of other diners at that point, and although we sat by the window there was little people-watching to be had. It’s a different story at weekends on the Weir, but once the nearby shops have shut, this is a fairly quiet corner of Hessle, which is itself quite removed from the popular dining areas of central Hull.
But Cucina soon filled up nicely and we remarked on the fact that it did also have the affluent west Hull villages to draw on for its customer base; its fine dining offering, which aims to showcase the food and wine from all 20 Italian regions, is sure to go down well with such an audience.
There’s a perception, sometimes well-founded, that fine food means a) meagre portions and b) an overly formal atmosphere. Thankfully, Cucina wasn’t anything of the sort, but the sheer quality of the food – a carefully curated combination of locally sourced and imported ingredients – and the innovative twists set it far apart from your average trattoria.
Even the hearty antipasti were a sign of things to come; at first glance they looked like the usual suspects of cured meats, sundried tomatoes, olives and bread, and these were all present and correct, but for me it was the cheeses that elevated it into something a bit special. One was the Oro Rosso, a creamy blue steeped in raboso wine; the other was Nero Fume’, a smoked blue flavoured with black tea. I’ve since discovered that these cheeses are made by the Italian company Valsana; I’m tempted to check out its online shop, as I found it difficult not to scoff the lot, especially when this was supposedly a sharing platter between Helen and photographer Leo, who had also joined us.
So, our taste buds had already been surprised well before our starters arrived. Bearing in mind we were filling up on the antipasti, both Helen and I thought the soup might be a good light choice, while Leo, who’d initially said he wasn’t stopping as he was having tea with his family later, decided to throw caution to the wind and order the deep-fried calamari and whitebait in a red pepper and chilli sauce (as those who will have read the team profiles on the BW website will know, Leo is an active lad, so he needs to keep his energy levels topped up). As I’m compiling in my head an entirely unscientific league table of the best calamari in Hull, I really should have nicked a bit of his starter, and I’m almost kicking myself for not doing so. That wouldn’t have been polite, though, so I’ll just say it looked divine. The soup of the day (tomato with gorgonzola and basil) was everything I’d hoped it would be, meanwhile.
Helen ordered the chicken supreme for her main course, and she did allow me to try a bit for research purposes – I can report it was beautifully soft, and the garlic, lemon and white wine sauce delicate yet punchy. I love a good steak, so I ordered the hearty steak pizzaiola, which was a marinated 8oz rump with fries, vine-roasted tomatoes, and beans with basil and oregano. I liked the addition of the mixed beans, and the fries were lovely, with a generous dusting of paprika and herbs.
We rather overestimated the amount of fries needed, I’m sorry to say. I think we were still erring on the “fine dining” side of caution and making sure we had enough to fill us up – and, even though I’m the sort of person who can eat a chip at any time of the day or night, there were, it was true, far too many for both of us. However, I have no shame whatsoever, and I asked if I could take them home, to which the friendly staff happily obliged. Although I enjoyed a few warmed up the next day, there were still so many left that when I reluctantly had to admit that they were now past their best, my local bird population were in for a rare treat.
This was another of those situations where, had this been an ordinary outing and not for the purposes of this feature, I probably would have foregone dessert, having been very much on the stuffed side. But, yet again, dear readers, just for you, we struggled through to the sweet, rather than the bitter, end. Helen chose the tiramisu, which, after I was offered a quick bite, seemed to me to be a beautifully deep-flavoured example of the Italian classic – no twists here, just superb flavour. My vanilla panna cotta, on the other hand, was rather more ‘out there’, being served with crunchy bits of candied orange, which offset the softness well, plus slices of red chilli. I’m not sure I’ve ever had a dessert with fresh chilli in it before; I’ve had chilli chocolate, but that’s different. While I didn’t dislike it, the jury was out, for me. I like a bit of heat, but fortunately these chillies weren’t hot; had they been, I think it could have spoiled the dish. But I have to commend the chefs for throwing a bit of a curveball here. Sometimes it’s about when to take risks, and when to leave well alone, and I think the balance is perfect here.
We were both driving, so didn’t have chance to do the very extensive wine list justice, although we sampled a glass each of the Vinuva organic pinot grigio (£22 a bottle) and the Feudi Salentini 125 Primitivo del Salento (£28); again, a lot of thought has clearly gone into sourcing these vinos, which, along with the food, are a geographical tour of Italy from Piedmont to Puglia. The unusual layout of the restaurant, with a 16-seat counter set around the open kitchen, lends itself to just popping in for a glass or two and a quick bite as well as the traditional table service. I think you’d have to return quite a number of times before you could sample all of the wines and seasonal dishes – and on this evidence, this is a course of action I’d recommend.

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