Cucina, the two-year-old restaurant ensconced in a rambling yellow farmhouse on the edge of Woodstock, has been a roaring success since it opened. Chef and co-owner Gianni Scappin drew a following when he was wowing them at his previous Hudson Valley enterprise, Gigi Trattoria in Rhinebeck, and Woodstock’s hipsters were quick to welcome his modern Italian cooking, especially considering the town had no Italian restaurant.
The farmhouse has seen a few eateries come and go. On the outside, it’s still all Victorian country charm, with an inviting wraparound porch where you can dine in warm weather. But once you’re in the door, the mood is buzzy and the look minimal yet warm. You enter via a small bar where glasses sparkle in front of a mirrored wall. There are dining rooms on either side. We ate in the larger one, which has tables arranged against banquettes around the edges, and a long, communal table for 24 anchoring the middle. Sleek pendant lights and sconces add to the polished look. Staffers are dressed in Woodstock-cool style: black on top and denim below (a look that some of the younger females expressed by wearing teeny skirts over leggings).
Gather ’round: Located in one of Cucina’s two dining rooms, this family-style table seats 24 diners
Scappin is known for creating simple but sophisticated dishes using just a few choice, seasonal ingredients, so you can enjoy discernible flavors rather than wrangle a plateful of razzle-dazzle. His menu is divided into appetizers, salads, pizzas, pastas, and entrées covering the basics — fish, lamb, beef, pork, chicken — and there are nightly specials in each category. You can munch dainty, housemade crisp breadsticks or dip tasty, fresh-baked focaccia in fruity olive oil while deciding whether to go for the more expensive fare, or take the pizza and salad route. We figured — as we were there on a mission — that we’d do both, and decided to share a Tuscan kale salad and one of the super-thin-crust pizzas as appetizers.
“Heavenly” is a word usually reserved to describe desserts, but I thought the kale salad was simply that. The uninitiated may grimace at the idea of raw kale, but the young leaves of lacinato, shredded and made tender by a lemony olive oil dressing, then sprinkled with toasted pine nuts, currants, and ribbons of tangy young Tuscan pecorino cheese was as rich and delicious as a raw vegetable can be — I could have eaten a bucket of it. Like its relatives, collards, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts, kale used to have a bum rap, so it’s a treat to find it turning up on menus nowadays.
Butterscotch budino (pudding) with toasted coconut creme is a favorite dessert
The caprina pizza was a treat, too. The flat, crispy crust was topped with puddles of silky Coach Farm goat cheese and a savory fig-rosemary-shallot spread, with nibbles of sweet, soft pear and peppery arugula leaves — it was no surprise to hear it’s the house favorite. As my romantic husband noted, if we were divorced and he’d gone to Cucina by himself, a kale salad and a pizza would have made a more than satisfying dinner.
All the same, we ate our entrées with relish. Mine was fettuccine with scallops and cream, flecked with fresh parsley. It was that night’s pasta special, and a terrific example of Scappin’s approach: a straightforward dish executed perfectly, with the freshest ingredients balanced just so.
Mr. Romantic’s slow-roasted duck almost had the texture of confit, and a similarly concentrated flavor. Little chunks of sautéed apple — and the beety-bite of fresh wilted Swiss chard laced with garlic — were perfect contrasts as sides. The whole dish was so satisfying that we didn’t realize until we were talking about it on the way home that there was no starch.
The dessert lineup included the usual biscotti, tiramisu, sorbetti, and such. The warm chocolate cake with vanilla gelato is a big seller, as is the satiny butterscotch budino with toasted coconut creme, although I found the latter overly sweet (perhaps I was still in kale mode).
The warm shrimp and white bean appetizer is punched up with tomato, sage, and rosemary
Scappin grew up in a tiny town about an hour and a half from Venice. His parents owned a trattoria, where Scappin learned from his father how passion for cooking translates into fine food. After culinary school in Italy and some on-the-job training around the globe, Scappin came to the U.S. at the age of 24. Successes on this side of the Atlantic included a stint as head chef at Manhattan’s Bice. Now in his rural incarnation and apparently not requiring much rest, he’s an instructor at the Colavita Center at the Culinary Institute by day, and a welcome addition to Woodstock’s dining scene by night. (By the way, Scappin’s favorite dish, pizzoccheri — made with buckwheat noodles, boiled cabbage and potatoes — isn’t offered at Cucina because he thinks few will be tempted. Tempted, I made it at home. Read about it on my blog, the Accidental Foodie, here.)
Here’s our one quibble: Twice, as we were enthusiastically tucking in, our efficient server asked if we were “still enjoying that.” Her tone was bright but suggested, “Will you be enjoying that much longer? Or can we promise your table to one of those couples waiting in the bar?” Minutes after the second query, a busgirl bopped over to see if we wanted our food wrapped to go. I believe that was a mistake (she seemed flustered), but we felt a little rushed. Perhaps it was our fault for going at the uncool hour of 7 p.m. on a weekend night. I suspect things are more leisurely later, or during the week.
Overall, the place has a lively, fun atmosphere and the food is remarkably good. Prices are fair given the high deliciousness quotient, although — at $10 and $12 — wines by the glass can ratchet up the bill. This fall, though, you can go for the special three-course prix fixe for $29. Now there’s a deal.
109 Mill Hill Rd., Woodstock. 845-679-9800. Open daily for dinner and brunch on weekends. Appetizers and salads range from $9-$13; pizzas $13-$15; entrées and pastas $17-$32