FOOD- DISH- Italian remedies: La Cucina defies 'curse' on Water

Back in 2003, Dish wondered if the space now occupied by La Cucina might be cursed. After all, the seemingly perfect restaurant spot on Water Street, strategically located near successful restaurants like Metro, Oxo, Bang, and Mono Loco, had been home to Farruggio's, which replaced Petra, which replaced East-West, which replaced Club 216, which replaced the Silver Fox.

"Is the building cursed? Interior too small? Bad feng shui?" Dish wondered.

"It's difficult for people to grasp the idea that a restaurant could do well here," says Meridith Benincasa, who with her husband/partner (and high school sweetheart) Francesco Benincasa, will be celebrating their third anniversary in the "cursed" space on April 14.

"We didn't even find out about the 'cursed space' reputation until after we moved in, but people don't stop bringing it up," Meridith says.

She's amused by the way people cling to the perception, continuing to ask her how the restaurant is doing in a concerned way, as if it were only a matter of time.

"It's kind of embedded in people's minds in a strange way," says Francesco, who does the cooking at La Cucina. "For example, when we started our new construction a year ago, during which we closed for 10 days, people thought we had closed for good... when in fact we were expanding!"

Indeed, public perceptions are hard to change. Still, there is local evidence that blows the idea of various "cursed" buildings around town out of the water.

For example, the original Bodo's on Emmet Street, which used to be a Roy Rogers restaurant, was considered one of the more "cursed" buildings in town. Obviously, "cursed" isn't a word that comes to mind when you think of Bodo's.

Likewise, Zocolo's space on the Downtown Mall (which used to be Moondance, which used to be Aschill's, which used to be the Charlottesville Yacht Club which used to be O'Dowd's) was once considered cursed, a perception the smokeless upscale nightspot seems to have dispelled.

"Charlottesville is such a crowded restaurant town that it takes time to differentiate yourself," says Francesco, whose strategy has been to build strong personal relationships with his customers. He's also relied on something he refers to as "the immigrant model."

"I think it's good that I came from an old-fashioned restaurant background," he says, "where everything is done by the family and you take on staff only when you can."

As a testament to his family's love of cooking, Benincasa says he didn't eat soup out of a can until he went to college. "Everything I know about cooking I learned from my family," he says. His father, Ugo, originally from Calabria, owns the historic Sheridan Livery Inn and restaurant in downtown Lexington, and has started and sold a number of area restaurants.

"We are truly trying to capture the essence of Italian food: very rustic, very true to the food Frankie grew up with," says Meridith.

"We've tried to model La Cucina after the trattorias in Italy," say Francesco, "and that's not always what everyone is used to when they think of American-style Italian cooking."

As he points out, La Cucina makes their own Calabrian-style sausage, serves up their eggplant parmigiana with a layer of boiled eggs on top, makes a minestrone soup that might change week-to-week, and serves up pasta al dente– real al dente.

"Still, I'm amazed at how people have responded to these traditional Italian dishes," he says.

Now, if only they'd stop worrying!

Weekend wine tasting

This weekend, April 8 and 9, from 1pm to 5pm, DelFosse Vineyards and Winery out in Nelson will hold a "Spring Barrel Tasting," featuring their 2005 Pinot Gris, 2005 Viognier, 2005 Viognier Reserve, and 2005 Rosé. Owner Claude DelFosse, a Paris-born winemaker who opened the winery on the 330-arce former apple orchard in 2000, has restored a 100-year old log cabin for the event, complete with spectacular views of the vineyard below.

Ah, Dish can't think of a more civilized way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

La Cucina's Francesco and Meridith Benincasa capture the essence of Italian cooking on Water Street.