A cheery, homely Italian restaurant is bringing a ray of sunshine to the chilly winter nights in Dubai.
Newcomer Cucina, tucked inside the pristine and shiny Marriott Resort Palm Jumeirah, officially opens on Monday after a successful soft launch.
With it, the young team aim to deliver traditional Italian values and some of the dreamiest gelato you’ll find outside of Sicily.
Ahead of its opening, The National was given the scoop (or five) with an exclusive first look around.
Where to sit, what to expect
More than anything else, eating in Italy means warmth and welcome. To me, after the occasional childhood summer there with distant relatives, it means no-fuss food, plenty of screams of “mangia!” (eat, boy!), copious cheek-pinching and seemingly endless plates of carbohydrates — that’s extra warmth, so says my nonna. It means sitting with loved ones for hours on end, navigating through starters, pasta, stories and laughter at a lethargic pace. Essentially, it’s an activity that must be done right and never rushed. So cancel all plans.
From the off, staff at Cucina are bursting with the same sort of affinity you’ll find throughout the Mediterranean nation — only without all the yelling. The maitre d' is beaming, while Kuda, our South African waiter for the evening, is jolly and knowledgeable.
Inside, the space is dark and sophisticated, mixing modern design with folksy flair. Features of farm life adorn the walls; handmade pasta drying on racks that decorate the glass walls; and even brightly coloured and varying shapes of tomatoes (more on them later) that serve as decor on the thick wooden tables. There’s an earthy, tactile feel throughout and already the verdict is: I’ll be coming back.
The traditional Italian menu is slim and focused, with a back-to-basics approach. Two things diners should know: dishes are skewed heavily towards carnivores. Kitchen specials are highlighted in black, while the pasta section changes weekly.
After confessing to Kuda that my dining partner and I unashamedly eat anything and everything, we entrust him to pick his top recommendations.
We’re then offered the chance to make our own bruschetta with the aforementioned tomatoes at our table. Eventually, with knife skills akin to a haircut by Edward Scissorhands, we dice, dollop, dip and devour the gorgeous tomatoes over thick, freshly made bread, olive oil and sweet, sticky balsamic vinegar.
It’s a fun way to light up the otherwise drab stretch between placing an order and aching for it to arrive.
Soon, though, the dishes are here. The burrata starter is a creamy sphere of lushness that makes me want to abandon cutlery and dive in with my hands — I resort to bread shovels instead.
The pizza benefits from the kitchen ingeniously flash-frying the base for one or two minutes before adding the toppings and finishing in the oven. The bresaola version is buffed by wafer-thin slices of meat, crunchy rocket leaves on an unconventional layer of white sauce instead of tomato. There is zero chance of a soggy bottom here.
Sadly, the baby octopus on crispy bread — the kitchen’s highlight — is the polar opposite, as the sturdy base we’re promised mushes under a flurry of sauce, turning into sepia-coloured paste. Chefs have the right idea with this dish, and with a little finessing, they could really make it sing.
We're given a leisurely break in between to rest and recover, allowing us to do as the Italians do and talk at length, unlike my upbringing in northern England where meals were made to be inhaled and eye contact was minimal. Eventually, having run out of things to say to my wife 45 minutes ago, mains arrive to steer the night back on track.
The lobster ravioli parcels are deftly made, cooked al dente and adventurous. The lamb chops are plump, the right side of blushing pink and sit on top of a bed of vegetable caponata with red peppers, teeny grapes, black olives and capers. The grilled king prawns (skip to standout dish below) take the crown for the night’s best.
There’s just enough time and room left to visit the restaurant’s sister site next door, Gelataria by Cucina, a stand-alone ice cream parlour.
Ice cream is big business in Italy — I can confirm that the Sicilian town of Noto does indeed serve the world’s best scoops of pistachio — and getting it right is even more important. So, with the likes of stracciatella, dulce de leche, espresso and even Gorgonzola on the menu, do they succeed? It’s a resounding, definitive, absolutely you bet.
The yoghurt flavour is absorbing and sharp while the Gorgonzola simply shouldn’t work, but it does. I seriously consider ordering a fifth scoop, if only to prolong a traditional Italian evening that is over too soon.
King by name, king by nature, the prawns are fit for any royal banquet. The bicep-sized morsels have been deshelled, kissed by flames, glazed with lemon olive oil and sit on a bed of sauteed fennel and onions. They should be served to the sounds of trumpeting fanfare.
Price point and contact information
Many of the dishes come in single or sharing-sized portions. Starters range from Dh55 to Dh90 as singles, pizzas are about Dh80 while salads range from Dh40 (single) to Dh70 (sharing). Single mains range from Dh80 to Dh120, which are doubled for sharing. Ice cream is Dh10 per scoop.
Cucina is open for dinner from 6pm to 11pm, with lunch and hot breakfast slots launching in February.
This review was conducted at the invitation of the restaurant