Love, Italian Style
We were fortunate to find an available table at Cucina Rustica on a Thursday evening in January. Our reservation was for 6:30 pm, and the parking lot was filling up fast. The place was packed, and for good reason. Sedona locals and tourists know a good thing when they find it and Cucina Rustica offers a very fine dining experience. Reservations are not just recommended—they’re a must! You don’t want to take a chance on missing out on this opportunity to enjoy first-rate Italian cuisine in a romantic setting.
Executive Chef and Owner Lisa Dahl is an energetic whirlwind of talent, enthusiasm, vision, and creativity. Cucina Rustica, the second of three thriving restaurants in Sedona, opened in June 2003. Her first restaurant, Dahl & Di Luca Ristorante Italiano was founded in December 1995. (See our review, also on this website.) Pisa Lisa, Gourmet Wood Fired Pizza, opened just a few months ago in May 2013. In all, her restaurants serve over 150,000 guests per year and employ over 120 persons. Dahl’s trinity of restaurants comprise a well-respected institution within the Sedona environs.
Dahl’s The Elixer of Life Cookbook came out in September 2010 and is now in its 3rd printing. Enthusiastic readers exclaim the book’s photos of Tuscany and Sedona offer a feast for the eyes, while recipes for her elegant dishes are simple and nearly as delicious at home as in her restaurants. She regularly appears on Phoenix-area television and her recipes have been featured in well-known foodie magazines such as Bon Appetit and Gourmet.
Before entering Cucina Rustica, or “rustic kitchen,” one passes through an iron-gated arch, under a wood-beamed arbor, and through a small patio, reminiscent of an Italian villa, awakening the senses and suggesting an authentic Mediterranean experience in the offing. Passing the large L-shaped bar area, one finds four dining rooms, designed to accommodate large groups or several small, intimate dining areas. Old world doors, splendid ironwork, four fireplaces, two fountains and two patios provide an authentic ambience, setting the stage for gastronomic delicacies to come.
Our evening began with a sampling of two antipasti, out of a selection of a dozen possible menu offerings. Our Bruschetta consisted of grilled focaccia bread, topped with organic tomatoes, basil, garlic, and extra virgin olive oil. Throughout the evening, we discovered Lisa’s grilling technique enhanced the flavor of food whenever appropriate. This was never more apparent than in our second appetizer. One of the most memorable selections came next, the Affinato (called Affinato di Andrea on the menu), which I would consider a “must” when dining at Cucina Rustica. The menu describes this antipasto as “mozzarella filled ambrosial radicchio wrapped in prosciutto and grilled to perfection.” Radicchio is a maroon-colored perennial leaf vegetable with a spicy taste. Sometimes known as Italian chicory, it mellows when grilled or roasted. Usually, in Italian cuisine, it is grilled in olive oil. The grilled mozzarella-radicchio-prosciutto combination was indescribably delicious and, for me, was the hit of the evening. Accompanying these two selections, Lisa added some delicately cooked “magic mushrooms” and a selection of flavorful green olives.
Lisa’s recommended wine pairing for this dish was the 2011 Vermentino Argentiera “Poggio al Ginepri” from Bolgheri, Italy (priced at $11 per glass). Our server described it as having a chardonnay-like flavor, yet it was not as fruity as many chardonnays but soft and mildly flavorful. We learned from Lisa herself that she and her photographer first discovered wines from this winery in Italy when accidentally “trespassing” in the region while capturing photographs for her cookbook. Once the owners of the vineyard realized who she was, they enthusiastically welcomed her and gave her a tour of their facility. On the heels of that moment, a sort-of partnership was established and Lisa now happily sells over 200 cases of their wines through her restaurants annually.
Our salad course was not found on the menu, as Lisa created it especially for us as her guests. It began as her Insalata Mista, consisting of organic greens lightly tossed in her signature balsamic shallot Dijon vinaigrette. However, Lisa added a hint of ginger to give her dressing an Asian flair, along with a few almonds and goat cheese. Five insalate and a homemade daily zuppa are also found on the menu. Lisa’s restaurants, it should be noted, are known for using fresh, local organic ingredients whenever available. Her pastas are made in-house as well, underscoring the fact that Chef Dahl insists on using the freshest, best-quality ingredients in everything she prepares.
Two stunning pasta dishes followed our salad course. The first creation consisted of fresh-made linguine with sautéed prawns and garlic. The prawns were extraordinarily large and bursting with flavor. The linguine had a certain peppery taste which complemented but did not overpower the delicacy of the prawns. Though we were offered another choice of white wine, we opted for the Super Tuscan Argentiera “Poggio al Ginepri” from Bolgheri, Italy, a red wine selection from the same winery mentioned above and highly recommended by Chef Dahl and her staff.
Following our linguine and prawns course, we were next served Lisa’s Luscious Lasagna, layered with fresh made Bolognese sauce, Italian sausage, and finished with ricotta, mozzarella, and parmesan cheeses. With the combination of cheeses and fresh pasta, this very rich lasagna made for a satisfactory main course, bringing our feast one step nearer the final crescendo.
For our dessert course, an elegant tiramisu, accompanied by a pair of Sicilian pastry cannoli (“little tubes”), brought our dining experience to a magnificent conclusion. Chef Dahl’s restaurants also feature many other fine Dulci choices rendering decision-making excruciatingly (albeit deliciously) difficult. It’s another way she has found to entice you back, as her patrons have discovered, to re-live a gastronomic memory not easily forgotten.
- 7000 State Route 179
- Sedona, AZ 86351
- (928) 284-3010
In The Village of Oak Creek, 5 miles south of Sedona, In Tequa Marketplace