The Art of Italian Food at 500 Cucina
A couple of months ago my daughter and I attended an exhibit and lecture at the newly opened Esker Foundation gallery. The lecture was meant to compliment the ‘Nervous Centre’ series painted by Landon Mackenzie. It was created to make you think about the brain processes that occur while you view art and the impressions that art leaves on your brain. Though I left that lecture feeling a little overwhelmed and almost ‘experimented on’ parts of it have remained tucked way back in the deepest recesses of my head.
It dawned on me tonight as we enjoyed the delicious food at the newly opened 500 Cucina (and in the same building as the Esker Foundation) how much food is like art. Some food even is art, if you want to be pedantic. It can be pretty to look at (French Macarons) and very technical. In order to truly appreciate it though you need to go back to basics. Study the art of past Masters and learn basic technique. If you have learned as you should, you must also have talent. Great art, or any art for that matter, is meant to evoke a response from the audience. In that respect there is no difference between food and art because food evokes a response much like art does. It stimulates the brain and encourages neurotic responses on so many levels. Once you’ve experienced enjoyment (or disappointment) with a food that memory stays with you forever. Think of those basic elements of food you grew up with, maybe it was something as simple as grilled cheese with processed cheese slices on ‘bought’ bread or homemade gnocchi from your Nonna, the food memories are with you forever. Similarly, the experiences you have (and share) while you are enjoying art or food also remain implanted in your brain. I think that is why I like to cook. I like the experience my family and friends have when they taste my food, whether it is good or bad but hopefully mostly good! I like thinking that maybe someday my passion for food will leave my children with many fond food memories.
Why is good Italian cooking so amazing? It’s because great Italian cooks know the basics. They combine basic (but fresh) ingredients like egg and semolina to make something as glorious as pasta. Then, they take that basic pasta and create art. The beautiful thing about Italian cooking is that it is so simple but quality ingredients and passion elevate it to become art. If you love cooking and you love sharing your passion then what follows will surely be a beautiful thing. If you can’t be in the South of Italy to enjoy great Italian food…you may as well give 500 Cucina a try. It’s easy to see and hear the passion that Chef Rocco has for his food and he knows that great food experiences can make people happy. ‘Food, Friends, Family’ is proudly displayed above the door as you enter. I think that is a great mantra for an Italian restaurant.
I’m glad that I brought my daughter back to the Art Block to try out the newly opened (April 20th!!) 500 Cucina. I’ll admit that Wednesday night does not look like the busiest night of the week because when we showed up there was only one table occupied on the patio. Upon arrival I could still smell the fresh new paint and as the evening progressed I could see the many unfinished bits and bobs, inevitable glitches that occur when you open a restaurant. The menu and drinks were limited and still in the testing phase and there were some service issues as well. There are definitely some areas that need working on but the basics are there. The food and the passion are there. I think this place is going to be more than okay.
After we ordered, my daughter and I wandered over to the open kitchen/bar seating to watch Chef Rocco make our food. Truth be told, those West facing windows let in a lot of heat and I shudder to think what will happen when those pizza ovens get switched on. Soon 500 Cucina will have their very own Italian pizza chef…straight from Italy! I definitely will be back for one or two of those pies, in fact I plan on coming back regularly to see how the restaurant progresses and once all the kinks have been worked out. Kid number two and I had a good chat with Chef Rocco about travels and truffles (tartufo) and food. What else do you talk to a chef about? As we spoke, he made our salad; Mixed organic greens with reduced balsamic, yellow tomatoes, and hunks of Fior de latte. It was fresh, and delicious.
Next, he made my pasta. I love mushrooms so I ordered the Tagliatelle with Mushroom Ragu. It was a very generous bowlful, so I ended up taking some of it home for lunch tomorrow. Since the restaurant had just received their shipment of olio al tartufo I was happy to have my dish finished off with some of that precious goodness. I know it’s a bone of contention when you start judging the way pasta should be cooked but of course if you ask any Italian, they want theirs done ‘al dente‘. It should stick to your teeth just a bit and my tagliatelle did just that. Perfetto. I did wish for a bit of fresh ground pepper but the house red that I had really lent a bit of a spice hit to the meal. I loved it. Just try to tell me that it isn’t ‘edible art’. Go on…
And finally, the Calamari Fritti. We watched as Chef Rocco hand dredged the calamari in his flour concoction and placed it in the fryer. By the time we had wandered back to our table he had hopped out from the kitchen and brought our salad and pasta with him. Then he went back to finish the Calamari. I don’t know what the hell he did to it but wow, that Calamari was amazing!
While we ate our meal, another table came in and Chef Rocco had their food out in a flash. We finished and though we were too full for gelato (?!) we wandered back to the kitchen/bar area for more conversation and some espressos (decaf. for kid number two of course!). Chef Rocco has great ideas in store for 500 Cucina. He explained that the small menu is only temporary and experimental. North American palates are not like those of Southern Italians so maybe what would be popular there, not so here. Who knows?
CINQUE CENTO (500)CUCINA
ATLANTIC AVENUE ART BLOCK (1003 9th AV SE)
Tuesday to Thursday 8am-10pm
Friday and Saturday 8am-12pm