location > 505 Laurel Street, Bankers Hill
phone > 619-239-2222
chef > Joe Magnanelli
ONE OF THESE DAYS, a guest at Cucina Urbana will raise a chunk of bruschetta to his lips, peer over the topping at a column wrapped in planks and say, “Look, honey, there’s our old fence!”
This may already have happened. Cucina Urbana, restaurateur Tracy Borkum’s “hard times chic” reclaimed redo of the long-running Laurel, has grabbed so much attention that a lot of San Diego has descended the shoetree-lined staircase to ogle the graffiti wall and funky light fixtures. Determined to revitalize this prime location, Borkum ditched the “swinging London” décor she imposed when she originally bought the place, and created an improvisational piece of theater that casts both patrons and staff as players—to the delight of just about everybody.
Cucina Urbana is loud, lively, engaging, conversational, silly, crowded, frisky, entertaining, giddy, inventive—and corny, too, as in the chicken coop mounted over a corner of the bar. Of the boards that cover columns and line the back bar, Borkum says, “We saved San Diego fences from the dump.” Amusingly apropos her admission, a guest unaware of this fact deemed the look “very Crate & Barrel.”
Many décor elements evidently were on the verge of becoming junk when Borkum and other merry pranksters (design collaborators included Jennifer Luce and Monica Crawford) recycled them into Cucina Urbana’s highly eclectic look. The place is unreservedly busy: a linear chandelier hung with horseshoes, chairs upholstered in white leather on the business side and in burlap sacking in back, flocks of halogen lamps in whimsical wire shades, a jam-packed cocktail bar, a separate pizza bar with a fiery oven, a communal dining table surrounded by animated diners on tall stools.
For drama, the back wall, once covered by etched mirrors, stretches as a vast plaster canvas for graffiti. For the most part, splashes of paint overlap in formless chaos, but a couple of slogans can be made out, including an exhortation to “Pentare globale, mangiare locale,” which in Italian simply means “Think global, eat local.” But how could anyone ever think globally at Cucina Urbana, a whirlwind scene secured no more tightly than Pandora’s box by four walls at the corner of Fifth and Laurel?
The cheap chic, which reportedly cost some $300,000, underscores a menu designed to attract with a “lower price point” than Laurel, which never was the epitome of cheap anything. But while entrées top out at $20, prices are not bargain basement. When the wolf is at the door, $12.50 seems plenty for three chunks of rustic ciabbata spread with the night’s bruschetta toppings. On the other hand, the food by and large is excellent, there are significant nightly specials (available most evenings only between 5 and 6 p.m.), and guests can prowl the handsomely stocked wine room, buy a bottle at retail and have it poured for a $7 corkage fee.
Among the specials, Take-Out Tuesday is the most unusual and best priced, since it encompasses a pizza, a salad and a bottle of wine for $30. Guests must feast at home, which seems the opposite of a restaurant’s primary goal, but it’s a clever concept that presumably keeps the pizza guy hopping. Sinful Sunday, also available through the evening, rescinds the corkage fee on all bottles priced at $20 or more.
THE MENU, which general manager Ben Kephart calls “a monster” because of its size, walks Italian, talks Italian and mostly is Italian, although often in updated versions created by chef Joe Magnanelli, who also ruled Laurel’s kitchen. “Innovative,” a greatly overworked word, usefully describes this menu rich in novelties, such as nightly “boards” piled with bruschetta, or arrangements of cheeses and cured meats (three selections for $12, five for $19), or polenta ($12.50). The kitchen pours the latter over a plank, then digs a hole in its middle and fills the polenta with the nightly ragus, such as a highly interesting stew of Sonoma duck and cherries.
The menu’s “vasi” are mini Mason jars filled with tasty nibbles, such as charred peppers with garlic ($6; the pungent flavors are slightly tamed by the accompanying toasts), a rich goat-cheese mousse with an apricot-chile marmalade ($7), seasonal pickled vegetables ($5.50) and a chicken-liver mousse ($7) with a disappointingly soft texture. More-substantial appetizers include a lovely fritto misto (“mixed fry”) of baby squid, shrimp, soft-shell crab and vegetables with excellent caper mayonnaise ($14).
There are pizzas (the $13 pie with pancetta, fried egg, potatoes and white sauce tempts); a pasta list that includes goat cheese and lemon ravioli ($16.50) and a fine linguine with clams, fresh mint and bottarga (dried fish bone marrow; $16.50); and formal entrées such as braised black cod in a pistachio-caper crust ($19.50) and casserole-roasted jidori chicken with Italian salsa verde ($18). An ideal dinner might open with the winsome caprese presentation of burrata (the creamy heart of fresh mozzarella), prosciutto, superb heirloom tomatoes, arugula and basil ($13.50). A diner who believes balsamico to be horribly overused rejected the “balsamic drizzle” and was highly gratified by the simple splash of olive oil he requested in its place.
Colorful as the graffiti wall, the veal piccata ($20) is confettied with capers, diced red bell pepper and crisped speck (a delicious cured meat). The tart lemon sauce offsets the irresistible sautéed sweet corn that provocatively differentiates this from more traditional piccatas. A sampler of sorbets and gelatos with crisp cookies ($9) follows perfectly and shares well.
Cucina Urbana serves dinner nightly (and, at press time, planned to add lunch) at 505 Laurel Street in Bankers Hill. Reservations are strongly advised; call 619-239-2222.