Be careful what you wish for.
Last November, in my original review of La Pietra Cucina, I complained about the strangeness of the dining room, which was a small room adjacent to the massive space that once housed MidCity Cuisine. I hoped for a grander space to showcase chef Bruce Logue’s irrepressible Italian cooking. Then, in May, the restaurant closed for a short while and reopened using the entire footprint, repurposing the original dining room as a private dining space.
So what, then, could my hypocritical (and apparently hypercritical) heart possibly find wrong with that? Wait for it ... I hate the new space. I miss the slightly disjointed but quirky feel of the original room.
I know, I know. It isn’t so much that the space has been redesigned, but how. Deep maroon with gold accents make up the palette — walls the color of Elvira’s lipstick; heavily gilded picture frames holding weighty paintings of monarchs and horses; chairs swathed in dark yellow velvet. Frank Sinatra croons through the speakers. It’s like someone’s rococo fantasy of what a fancy Italian restaurant should be — which is fine, I guess, except that once again, it doesn’t match Logue’s cooking in the slightest.
What would match Logue’s style? Something bold. Classic lines with hints of modernity. Logue’s food is slightly beyond definition, and continues to capture my imagination in ways that few chefs in this city can.
There are classic dishes that have barely changed since the early days. The prosicutto on flatbread with mounds of pillowy house-made ricotta and pineapple mostarda — the riotous tropical nature of the fruit tempered into elegance by some trick of spicing and texture — is a dish worth returning to infinite times. The marinated vegetable salad with its disarmingly sharp arugula set off against mellow sweetness — you’d barely know where it came from without investigation, but look closely and you’ll find a meticulous mix of onions cooked almost to jam, currents, and pine nuts inside the folds of creamy eggplant.
And then there are the newer dishes: wild ramp tortellini swimming in an intensely flavored brodo, the broth’s mellow, meaty comfort playing against the springy pasta's light onion filling. “You gonna finish that?” my dining companion teased as I banged desperately with my spoon at the bottom of the bowl for the last few drops of brodo.
I find Logue’s food most exciting when its flavors nip at the edges of confusion. Salmon over artichoke and field pea “minestrone” with shrimp gnudi takes at least a few tastes to wrap your brain around. The gnudi — small dumplings — have an appealing, almost chalky mouthfeel that’s at once pleasing and disconcerting. Paired with the melting salmon and the snap of a sea bean garnish, your mind darts from flavor to flavor and wonders at the harmony of it all.
But complexity isn’t the only recipe for success here. A straightforward penne, house-made and in the shape of fat calamari rings, sports a hearty pomodoro rich with basil and San Marzano tomatoes. The roast chicken, that true test of a cook’s ability to achieve greatness through simplicity, does not disappoint. Juicy and flavorful all the way through, the bird sits atop a lovely jumble of sweet corn fregola (a pasta similar to couscous, but heartier, nuttier, better).
A recent special of oil-poached halibut sat in a broth so creamy and bright with corn milk it barely needed the dollop of pesto to liven it up. Summer eating at its best. And the honey gelato on a dessert of amaretti-stuffed peaches completely captures honey's unctuous intensity, leaving a coating of pollen sensuality on the tongue and throat.
So forget the décor — it barely matters. Besides, there are things I hoped for in my original review that the new La Pietra does offer. The 100 percent Italian wine list has grown, and become more eclectic and food-friendly. Service has remained personal and lost the disjointed and aloof qualities it was sometimes prone to early on. For better or worse, La Pietra Cucina now feels like a real restaurant. And Logue’s cooking is, if anything, better than ever.
If I just close my eyes, all my wishes can come true.
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