They say “don’t judge a book by its cover,” and the same can be said for restaurants located in humble strip malls. Such is the location of La Cucina on Putnam Pike in Smithfield. But once you step inside, you could easily be in Federal Hill or Boston’s North End.
La Cucina, which is Italian for “the kitchen,” is a restaurant with a split personality. On one side is the lively bar and lounge area. On the other is the romantic dining room. The restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner so dining possibilities abound here.
The folks at the front of the house welcomed us warmly, and the wait staff seemed genuinely thrilled to have us there on the night we stopped by. Erika quickly brought me a glass of Pinot Grigio, and Brian was pleased to see that they had Peroni on the menu. Hot and cold appetizers, soups and salads, entrees from the grill as well as veal, fish and chicken dishes, along with pasta and risotto – there was much to consider.
I never met a meatball that I didn’t want to try, so I just had to have the Polpette di Carne ($7.95) as my first course. This is a hot trend in Italian restaurants – an oversized meatball topped with marinara sauce and a dollop of ricotta cheese. The meatball was mighty meaty, the sauce was just like mama used to make and the ricotta was creamy. All in all, this was a pleasing introduction to what La Cucina has to offer.
Brian pondered which soup to order and finally decided on the Minestrone ($4.50), a steaming bowl of hearty tomato-based soup that rendered mouthful after mouthful of tender vegetables seasoned perfectly with herbs.
Next we shared the Insalata di la Casa ($8.95), which the kitchen was good enough to split in half on two separate plates at no extra charge. A large salad to begin with, there was more than enough romaine and baby spinach tossed in a champagne vinaigrette. The satisfying taste notes came from the sun-dried cranber- ries, goat cheese and pine nuts that were blended in among the tender greens.
We prefer to order dishes that we don’t normally eat at home. For me that night, it was the complex Risotto Mediterraneo ($24.95) and for Brian, the very simple Baked Haddock ($18.95).
Placed before me was a deep soup bowl of perfectly prepared Arborio rice topped with a generous amount of seafood in an ever so light tomato sauce. The squid rings were tender. The scallops were petite. The shrimp had just the right crunch to every bite. The mussels and clams had popped open, offering up the pleasantly chewy bounty of the ocean.
The classic haddock was extraordinarily good. I decided after just one bite that this is a dish I would order on my next visit to La Cucina. A large piece of fresh haddock was baked in a white wine fresh herb sauce and topped with a whisper of buttery cracker crumbs. Most entrees are served with a choice of potato and vegetable or pasta. Brian chose the pasta – an odd pairing with the haddock – only because we were both curious about La Cucina’s pasta offerings. That night we chose the Capellini Pomodoro, fine strands of angel hair pasta in a fresh tomato sauce flavored with basil, garlic and a splash of olive oil. Once again, it was just like mama used to make.
After a dinner this fine, dessert wasn’t the least bit necessary. But, Brian is to chocolate cake as I am to meatballs – he never met a slice he didn’t want to try. At La Cucina, it is dense and fudgy and not very Italian, but delicious nonetheless.
My mama is no longer with us. At least now I know where I can go in the suburbs for real Italian food worthy of her memory.
Linda Beaulieu is the author of The Providence and Rhode Island Cookbook, available at stores throughout the state.