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So many people have favorite memories of dining at Cucina restaurant in Park Slope. Whether it was that going away party for a colleague, or a small bar mitzvah or romantic dinner for two, the 15-year-old eatery has been a reliable neighborhood fixture. Now it’s even better.

An evening at Cucina is a worry-free experience. Diners find their every need is attended to - especially their craving for sophisticated Italian cuisine, bursting with flavor.

The amenities include valet parking - a significant service in the no-parking-spots Slope - and a coat check, leaving you unfettered from parking woes and shopping bags and able to snuggle into one of the corner banquettes for a scrumptious, multi-course meal delivered by a friendly, efficient waitstaff.

Tireless Chef Michael Fiore is in all places at once: on the floor checking that customers needs are attended to and in the kitchen overseeing the preparation of his comprehensive menu that offers pastas (many of them freshly house-made), fish and meat entrees.

This is a homecoming of sorts for Fiore, 29, a Culinary Institute of America grad who is returning to Cucina after a three-year absence. (He had previously toiled in Cucina’s kitchen for four years under former executive chef Michael Ayoub.)

A Bay Ridge resident, Fiore has worked in Manhattan’s Park Avenue Cafe with David Burke, at Becco and The Frico Bar with Lydia Bastianich ("I learned a lot from her," Fiore said of the television host and author), and last year, had a brief stint at Bay Ridge’s Pazzo, where he opened the eatery with a menu that garnered critical acclaim. (See the Feb. 4, 2002 GO Brooklyn review here.)

Fiore returned to Cucina in May, and the neighborhood is showing its appreciation by returning for dinner, takeout and private parties.

"I just have to get them in here once," said Fiore.

At Cucina, it’s best to let the capable staff guide you. They are skilled at everything from pairing winning wines with each dish to sweeping in with a generous basket of fresh, artisanal bread and focaccia and a plate of spicy olives to pulling together astounding antipasto tasting platters.

Cucina still has the same golden lighting, tin ceiling and wooden pizza paddles on the walls, with jazzy background music and cozy beige banquettes, but Fiore still has plans to upgrade the interior next year. He’s already revamped the wine list with many selections from Italy. (Help him clean out his wine cellar by snapping up discounted wines on Wednesdays.)

The "antipasto della Cucina" tasting plate was a generous array of hors d’eouvres brimming with complementary flavors. With roasted red peppers and the breaded and fried creamy ricotta ball in the plate’s center (which serves to quench the fire from the very garlicky, smoky broccoli rabe), as well as grilled asparagus, buttery white button mushrooms, eggplant parmesan, refreshing cubed beets, grilled zucchini, fresh mozzarella and tender soprassata (mild pork sausage), this was a flashy exhibition of culinary skill that raised our expectations - and effectively whetted our appetites - for what was still to come.

The cold seafood salad appetizer of lobster and lump crabmeat, topped with shrimp and glossy seaweed and surrounded by dollops of red pepper vinaigrette, was a scrumptious mound of creamy, sweet meat from the sea presented in a picture-perfect tower.

If one was yearning for comfort food, the crisp, stuffed saffron rice ball, filled with a moist melange of ground veal, peas, tomatoes and mozzarella, was a substantial, dense appetizer guaranteed to please.

The "pizza alla griglio" was a more sophisticated version of another comfort food. Served without tomato sauce on a cracker-thin crust, the pizza was topped with asiago cheese, soprassata, parmesan and drizzled truffle oil.

The pastas - whether the gloriously light spinach-and-cheese ravioli with subtle sage and butter sauce; the earthy, creamy wild mushroom risotto with parmesan and truffle butter; or the wintry half-moon ravioli filled with braised veal in a Marsala and truffle oil sauce - were so spectacular that they completely and utterly eclipsed the uninspired rigatoni in a ragout of garlic, sausage, tomatoes and cream.

But we haven’t yet told you of the grilled New Zealand lamb chops: without the usual herb crust, they were served with a smoky, rich barbecue sauce that betrayed Fiore’s knowledge of French cooking techniques, learned at London’s Le Gavroche under Chef Michael Roux. The chops were accompanied by crisp, cheesy gratin potatoes and the garlicky broccoli rabe.

The chocolate bomb dessert arrived in a spectacular presentation (dome shell surrounded by a starburst of drizzled chocolate), and then it lived up to its name by exploding with so-rich-it-was-fruity chocolate.

Cucina also offers those delicious Italian mainstays, cannoli and tiramisu, but the peach crostada - a peach tart served warm with lavender gelato - was a misfire. The strong flavor of lavender only served to remind me of the sachets in my lingerie drawer and seemed better suited to flavoring uneaten French pastilles purchased solely for their decorative miniature tins.

In addition to sherries, ports and expertly prepared cappuccino and espresso, Cucina has an array of after-dinner grappas.

Making a dinner reservation at Cucina is a surefire way to create another perfectly memorable evening in Park Slope.

 

Cucina is located at 256 Fifth Ave. at Carroll Street in Park Slope. The restaurant accepts American Express, Visa, MasterCard and Discover. Entrees: $14-$27. For reservations, call (718) 230-0711. For more information, visit the Web site at www.cucinarestaurant.com.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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