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When it comes to Italian food, Durham definitely has a leg up on most of the cities in the Triangle. From Gocciolina to Mothers and Sons and now, Cucciolo Osteria! A new option conveniently located on W. Main Street, Cucciolo is definitely bringing some new and different eats to the Bull City Italian food game. And if you’re up for great Italian food in a more proper setting, I think you’ll like Cucciolo quite a bit.
Brought to you by Duke University alumni Jimmy Kim, Cucciolo Osteria comes from a small 5-restaurant chain that started over in S. Korea. Built out next to old Durham standby West End Wine Bar, Cucciolo Osteria has a pretty convenient location except for ONE thing: parking. The lot the restaurant sits in is usually full and most of the spaces seem to be reserved for residents rather then for retail parking. I’ve had better luck parking directly on Main Street but that is a bit of a crap-shoot with the parking meters.
Once you find your parking space and get inside of Cucciolo, you’ll be greeted by a host or hostess up front which gives the restaurant a slightly upscale feel. The long space is a tribute to understated simplicity. Industrial concrete floor, high ceilings and a very long, white marble-top bar dominate the setting. Lighting is dim with good ambiance, it all feels a bit industrial and modern. Given the price-points at Cucciolo, it seems to be drawing an older crowd based upon what I’ve seen during my visits. A handful of 4-tops sit up front with smaller 2-tops lining the space. Seating is somewhat limited so you may need a reservation if you’d like to dine at a table versus the bar.
With the short menu, you’ll get a chance to try most of your favorite dishes, pretty quickly. For starters, check out the very interesting prosciutto with mozzarella mousse and fried gnocchi! On the plate, Cucciolo serves up some tender slices of prosciutto paired with pillowy, fried gnocchi and crumbled mozzarella. I’m not entire sure how to eat this plate (wrap the gnocchi and dip into mozzarella mousse?) but most of it made its way into my mouth. An interesting play on several Italian classics. The butternut squash arancini is offered as six generous pieces of arancini with a spicy aioli which makes for a great starter.
Moving on to the pastas at Cucciolo, you’ll find a short assortment of primis as both fresh and dry pasta in the $14 to $20 range. The white ragu tajarin I tried was fantastic, toothsome and flecked with cheese, pork and parsley. The pasta serving sizes at Cucciolo are just enough to sate your appetite but probably not enough for a full meal unless paired with an appetizer. Overall I was impressed with their pastas but feel that all the offerings should be house-made at these price points.
Moving on to the entrees at Cucciolo, you’ll find a small assortment of meat-forward dishes across the beef, pork, chicken and seafood spectrum. The butter chicken ($19) is served at the table in a sizzling hot cast-iron mini-skillet. Lightly breaded and fried crispy, you’ll find the chicken to be extremely tender and rich. A very simple but delicious preparation for a normally boring chicken breast. I also tried the porchetta ($27) which is an Italian standard for me: slow-roasted pork belly and loin wrapped around herbs and nuts. Cucciolo’s version was a miss for me, heavily fatty, luke-warm and covered in some sort of sweetish, nut-based sauce. I really scratched my head on this one, typically it’s a very simple preparation that shows off the simple roasted meat but at Cucciolo it was just doused and covered nearly beyond recognition. I couldn’t taste any crispy, pork skin or tender loin which was a surprise.
When you look at Italian food in Durham, you’ve got some delicious contenders and Cucciolo fits right into the mix of better Italian for the Bull City. But even given its great online reviews, I feel like they’ve got some areas for improvement. More house-made pastas and better execution on the porchetta given their price points seem like reasonable expectations. And given how new Cucciolo is, I think there’s definitely room for growth in this Italian food concept, buon appetito!