Tra-tra trattoria: Is it Water Street or Calabria?

As soon as Dish got a whiff of new Italian cuisine in the ever-changing building on Water Street, we were quick to sniff out the story.

Ugo and Francesco Benincasa are the father-son team transforming the space most recently occupied by East to West into La Cucina (pronounced coo-chee-na, and meaning kitchen), a traditional Italian trattoria. Get your al dente appetites ready. This one could stick­ and not just to the ceiling.

The Benincasas, who as a family have more than 30 years in the restaurant business, currently own and run the historic Sheridan Livery Inn and restaurant in downtown Lexington. Kind of like the Founding Father of Italian eats in this charming little Valley town, Ugo Benincasa also started, then sold, such places as Frank's Pizza and, for finer dining, Il Palazzo.

With long years' experience in kitchens and dining rooms like these, Francesco, 27, felt the time was ripe to start his own eatery-­ under his father's proud and watchful eye. Close enough to home, yet lively enough to excite a young entrepreneur, Charlottesville seemed the perfect place to realize his family-fed dream. When business broker and commercial realtor Stuart Rifkin showed him the cozy Water Street space, all the pieces fell into place.

La Cucina's concept is as simple, yet as difficult to master as a perfectly cooked plate of pasta al pomodoro. "I really want to be true to the idea of the trattoria– a restaurant with a casual, home-like atmosphere, a place you'd feel comfortable bringing a date or your own mother for lunch or dinner," Francesco tells us.

For those not familiar with this uniquely Italian genre, a trattoria (from the verb "trattare"-­ to deal with or attend to) implies a simple, familiar, and usually family-run neighborhood eatery.

Different from the more formal ristorante, a trattoria serves exemplary regional dishes and wines for a reasonable price. Daily specials, which often make up the entire menu, are often recited or written by hand on a chalkboard.

As an Italian trattoria in Virginia, La Cucina's specialties will stretch back to the culinary roots of the Benincasa family in sun-drenched Southern Italy. "My mom's from Formia [near Naples], and my dad's from Calabria [the toe of the boot], so you can expect family recipes like pasta puttanesca, lots of clams and mussels, and homemade spicy sausages," Francesco says.

So when will it be buon appetito time? Since Francesco isn't planning major renovations (a few kitchen alterations, a little "dressing up") it shouldn't be long. Let's give them a month at least before we descend.


Asian express picks up the pace

 Attention sushi and Szechuan lovers pressed for time. Asian Express will be opening any day in the newly-­ and beautifully– renovated brick house across from the Hampton Inn in the 900 block of West Main Street, formerly a funeral home and office building. Commercial contractor Joe Arbaugh handed over the keys last Saturday, so the rest is up to the permit providers.

With its rose-colored ceramic tiles, bright blue walls, yellow ceiling and trim, and lots of shiny stainless steel, the place has a fresh, modern feel. Specializing in healthy (no MSG, little oil, an easy-to-clean, state-of-the art kitchen) and fast Japanese and Chinese food for carry-out and delivery, Asian Express is the product of husband and wife team Karry Yan-Cao (manager) and Jing-Cao (owner, head chef).

The 30-year-olds from Hong Kong bring years of experience as well as a fresh ideas to the changing West Main landscape.

"Lots of people around here, like students and hospital workers, don't have time to go out to eat. They also want healthy foods like sushi and vegetable dishes," Cao says.

That they'll soon have-­ in 20 minutes or less.