A taste of Italy

Cucina Rustica offers pasta aplenty and comfort as well

By Erica Wayne 09/29/2011

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It’s unlikely that we would have discovered the Montrose branch of Cucina Rustica (their sister restaurant is in downtown Los Angeles) on our own. But we gave departing friends (moving from sunny Southern California to Buffalo — can you imagine?) their choice of venue for a “last supper” before they packed up their cats, some last minute Trader Joe’s purchases and our gift of a quartet of Mimi’s carrot muffins in their Prius for a cross-country trek this August. (I think they were anxious to 
get to upstate New York before the 
first snowfall.)
At any rate, Hal’s Caltech mates had taken him to Cucina Rustica a few weeks before to celebrate his retirement, and he’d been quite taken with it. Kay, who’s part Italian, hadn’t been included, and wanted to try it out as well. Of course, my mate, Alan, is always up for any restaurant with spaghetti Bolognese on its menu. (On sabbatical in Lausanne, he lived on the stuff with an occasional side of pizza. The only French or Swiss cuisine he suffered was forced on him during my occasional conjugal visits.)
At any rate, all four of us had regretted deeply the loss of Dino’s, that extremely old-fashioned Italian restaurant with plush red booths, great breadsticks, decent Chianti by the pitcher and huge plates of (mostly tomato-sauced and cheese-blanketed) unpretentious but completely satisfying food at great prices. It was within walking dist-ance of our homes, and we almost always came home with enough leftovers for an additional meal. 
Though there are plenty of other “basic” Italian restaurants in Pasadena, somehow, none of them has provided us equal comfort. In describing Cucina Rustica, Hal footnoted his comments with a mention of Dino’s, not so much in décor or menu, but in some indefinable elements of ambiance he couldn’t pinpoint. At any rate, by the time we piled into the car, we were all looking forward to our dinner.
We parked in the big public lot behind the restaurant (on the south side of Honolulu Avenue) and walked in through the rear entry. Once we’d made it up the stairs to the main dining room, the similarities (and differences) to Dino’s became clear. Most immediately apparent, the restaurant is much bigger, with tables and booths set much further apart. 
Notwithstanding its size, Cucina Rustica is kind of cozy: dark wood tables with upholstered chairs, dark floors, booths with pillows and potted plants. Conversation is easy, helped by warm garlic focaccia and a nicely annotated wine list. One orange wall is painted with figures in Venetian carnival masks. Another wall sports a large painting of the Veneto.
But despite the decorative focus on Italy’s north, the kitchen’s emphasis is definitely on more southern cuisine. Cucina Rustica’s bill of fare is some 60 traditional pasta and entrees strong in addition to long lists of appetizers, soups, salads and pizzas. Surprisingly, three of my favorites (fettuccine with clam sauce, spaghetti puttanesca and chicken fra diavolo) are absent. No matter; Alan’s beloved Bolognese ($13) was prominently featured, as was Hal’s lasagna al forno ($14). 
Kay decided on penne amatriciana (a traditional pancetta and tomato-sauced pasta), here augmented with pieces of mild smoked sausage ($13), while I picked penne with artichokes and spinach in a white wine and tomato sauce ($14). We also splurged on appetizers of smoked salmon bruschetta ($9) — toasted ciabatta topped with salmon, ricotta, avocado, boiled egg and fresh dill. A house-made buttermilk sauce was good, but completely unnecessary.
Everything was absolutely delicious. We polished off two bottles of valpolicella. (Alas, no pitchers of Chianti, so the wines more than doubled the cost of our meal.) The men finished their generous portions; Kay and I packed ours up. I didn’t ask how they were going to eat the leftovers on the road, but I knew she’d liked the pasta enough to somehow make it work.
It was our final farewell to longtime neighbors and close friends, so we couldn’t leave without dessert. Luckily, Cucina Rustica has a bunch of them, from gelato truffles ($6.50) to gelato cakes ($7) to “featured” sweets like their apple raisin crepe or chocolate lover’s delight cake for $7.50. Every dessert had a full-color picture next to its description, so even though the prices were high, they were damn near irresistible.
We indulged in a multicolor spumoni cake, the chocolate lover’s cake, an espresso leaf truffle and an unadorned mango sorbet ($5). Although they were all pretty, nobody was overwhelmed. Perhaps we’d over-wined and dined by that point, or perhaps we were too close to having to say arrivederci to really enjoy the finale.
But we did agree that our Café Rustica dinner was thoroughly enjoyable and a perfect sendoff for two of our favorite, soon-to-be-distant friends and one that we’d be visiting again, with or without them. 

Cucina Rustica
2276 Honolulu Ave., Montrose
Full bar/Major cards


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