Flavor: Fresh, seasonal pan-Italian
Price: Lunch, $8-$11; dinner, $12-$21
Where: 24 Wall St., Asheville
Hours: Tue-Thu, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m.; Fri, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m.; Sat, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5 p.m.-11 p.m.; Sun, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5 p.m.-9 p.m. Closed Monday.
All my visits to Cucina 24 have started with the same long wait at the hostess stand. I’ve never encountered a line—although, heaven knows, with such superlative food on offer, even the indignity of being handed a blinking pager device would be endurable there. Instead, it’s usually just me and another customer, wondering whether anyone knows we’re there.
I’ve stood at the unmanned hostess stand with fellow food critics, colleagues and out-of-towners, all of them equally baffled by the invisible cordon dividing the plush storefront lounge area from the bustling dining room a few steps below. We’ve strategized: Should someone approach the bartender? We’ve whined a little, having grown accustomed to the perky, ready-to-please restaurant greeters that are the trademark of a tourist town. And, ultimately, we’ve sighed and waited our turn to be whisked down the long, honey-lit corridor to a table.
Lately, I’ve come to appreciate the wait. Like the ramp leading to the comfortably hip sunken dining room, the pause serves to create some welcome distance between Cucina 24 and the world beyond its doors. Cucina 24 does what only the best restaurants do: It makes everything else feel very far away. “I can’t believe we’re in Asheville,” I’ve heard more than one dazzled guest muse aloud.
The kicker is that the restaurant doesn’t rely on gimmicky décor or an overwrought menu to induce eating-out ecstasy: Cucina 24 has justly placed its faith in its dishes. Chef and owner Brian Canipelli is a sucker for stripped-down simplicity, as exemplified by the centerpiece found atop each table: Lanky house-made breadsticks gathered in a juice glass.
“I didn’t want to be a special-occasion restaurant by any stretch of the imagination,” Canipelli told me when we met for a meal. (I ate there on some occasions anonymously, but later told him I was there as a food writer.) “I wanted to do honest interpretations of classic Italian food.”
Canipelli, a veteran of Rezaz and Table, spent the better part of a year planning Cucina 24’s debut. He recruited his brother and a former culinary-school classmate to staff the open kitchen, creating a clubhouse air he says is conducive to great cooking. “We know each others’ strengths and weaknesses,” he says.
So well, it seems, that not a single one of those weaknesses is apparent to diners. Canipelli is serving phenomenal food, and knows it: He declined to expound on his cooking philosophies when we met, and offered the same shrug in response to every compliment and challenge. Because, really, are there any words that could convey Canipelli’s skill and purpose as articulately as a dish of fava beans with mint, olive oil and pecorino?
Cucina 24’s urbane menu is organized in traditional Italian fashion, so diners can enjoy a standard progression of antipasti, pasta, entrée and cheese courses. But Canipelli says many guests linger in the antipasti section, ordering up a veritable picnic of small plates, most of them composed of deceptively humble-sounding ingredients.
The antipasti menu I sampled included a rich chicken-liver crostini, zippy marinated mushrooms, olives, peppers and six cured meats. And then there was the mound of delectable, watercolor-green, pureed favas, packed with a startling amount of springtime flavor.
Cucina 24 is quite kind to vegetarians and vegans—a friend of mine reports that when he called about options for his vegan guest, the restaurant took the cue to prepare an all-vegan feast for the pair. Three of the four wood-fired pizzas available at suppertime, including a stunning wild mushroom-and-taleggio pie, are veggie-approved. I also adored a rustic salad of warm asparagus, crowned with a jiggly sunny-side up egg.
Canipelli delights in juxtaposing textures and temperatures; it’s not unusual to find hot and cold elements elbowing for space on the same plate. Although not all his experiments are successful—I was slightly put off by a chickpea salad featuring tuna subjected to three minutes of wood smoking, creating what tasted like very hot raw fish —the underlying playfulness is remarkably engaging.
While meat surfaces throughout the menu, Canipelli is “never going to do filets,” he says. None of his creations could easily be replated on the tripartite cafeteria trays designed for equal portions of protein, starch and vegetable. His dishes are fully realized compositions, perhaps none more so than the exceedingly popular roasted lamb shoulder, which Canipelli soaks in milk for six hours before pulling its meat, served with an equally marvelous velvety goat-cheese polenta. “It’s kind of a homey dish, you know,” Canipelli says. Unlike many slow-roasted dishes, the flavor-forward lamb retains a healthy measure of textural integrity that offsets the creaminess of the polenta.
Cucina 24 offers an array of impressive pastas, including a lovely sweet-pea agnolotti finished with a salty pancetta. All of the pastas are made in-house, except for those that aren’t—the linguine with clam sauce and bucatini carbonara are both built on dried noodles.
“I guess I could be making linguine,” Canipelli said when asked why he’d chosen to serve the dishes at all, since both are seriously undermined by less-than-perfect pasta. “It’s a good question. I guess I’m kind of learning as I go.”
So forgo the classics for now, and try a dish like the awesomely good black-pepper tagliatelle, an updated cacio e pepe, with the black peppercorns brilliantly worked into the pasta dough, embedding a depth absent from most preparations of the sheep’s-cheese-flaked dish. Although the wavy noodles, looking like a skein of unraveled yarn, are visually bland, the flavor is sensational, with the pungent earthiness of the cheese providing the perfect counterbalance to the sharp sophistication of the peppercorns.
I was so completely taken with the tagliatelle when Canipelli served it to me that when I returned to Cucina 24, I insisted my dining companion—who has no obvious affection for black pepper or sheep’s-milk cheese—order it. Disappointingly, the noodles were gummy and the dish was overwhelmed by synthetic-tasting black-truffle oil. Still, in the course of three unannounced visits, it was the only unsuccessful dish I encountered, which suggests to me most of the food offered to the public is every bit as good as what I was given in my role as a reviewer. And that is very, very good, indeed.