Amid the ballyhoo about Johnson City’s burgeoning restaurant scene, there is a rumor that the high country of Johnson County is quietly becoming the place to go for fine dining.
There is truth to the rumor, particularly regarding one restaurant you’ll find next to the two-lane tarmac of Highway 67W about 8 miles this side of Mountain City.
A Saturday afternoon hankering for Italian cookery brought the dine-around bunch and me to La Cucina Italian Kitchen.
The white frame building has seating for just 16-20 patrons. If you are planning to dine here, reservations are definitely in order.
Dining inside or on the porch is like having your meal at the home of good friends, which is what proprietor Mateo Torri wants his diners to feel.
Torri runs La Cucina from his efficient open-plan kitchen, where he sees to it that the cuisine is every bit as Italian as he is.
Torri has a strict adherence to authenticity in his recipes. He makes trips to Charlotte, N.C., for the purchase of rare ingredients, and locally sources other staples to ensure freshness. Because of this, La Cucina’s daily menu changes frequently, printed with chalk on chalkboard rather than ink on paper.
Our personable server, Dolly Jane, went over our chalkboard choices and suggested we, as a table, try a family-style supper.
Family style means we pick three entrees brought to the table in serving bowls rather than on individual plates. That way, the five of us would be able to enjoy a good sampling of Torri’s cooking and have plenty to go around.
The caprese salad ($9) opener was easy. Our choices for the three entrees were the country carbonara ($12), the puttanesca ($16.50) and the shrimp polenta ($16). Dolly Jane suggested we get a side order of Italian sausage and peppers to go with the puttanesca, which immediately endeared her to the Carnivore.
I noticed several other patrons were enjoying a glass of wine with their meal, and asked Dolly Jane for the wine list. I was told that La Cucina did not serve wine, but patrons could bring their own if they chose.
The appetizing caprese salad featured a thick slice of ripe tomato topped with a section of fresh mozzarella cheese, dried oregano and garnished with radicchio sprigs, black olives and olive oil, all much appreciated by the Dieter. Accompanying the salad were fresh Italian bread slices with two types of toppings — one spicy-hot, one savory-sour — and some fresh-grated parmesan cheese.
As our “family” was finishing the salads and bruschetti, Dolly Jane brought our entrees out. She set the serving bowl holding the puttanesci down in front of the Carnivore.
“Don’t worry, honey,” she said, trotting back to the kitchen, “I haven’t forgotten you.”
Dolly Jane returned moments later with a personal-sized serving bowl of sausage and peppers. The puttanesca featured linguine pasta in a delicious red sauce with chopped anchovies, black olives, capers and some excellent shrimp sautéed in white wine.
The country carbonara was a favorite of the shrimp-o-phobic Retiree; linguine pasta served with a smooth alfredo sauce loaded with chopped artisan bacon pieces, onions and porcini mushrooms. The smoky bacon, combined with the porcini’s pungent earthiness and the savory undertone of the onions, made the dish a treat for the Retiree’s palate.
The polenta was my dining partner’s favorite, a masterful blending of several cheeses, garlic and spices, perfectly complementing the spicy heat of the arrabiata’ed shrimp.
Dolly Jane stopped by with description of the evening’s three featured desserts ($6.50 each). We started with the tiramisu, which boasted a wonderful filling. And the sponge cake had just the right amount of liqueur. Then we moved on to the viennetta, an ice cream cake that looks and tastes like it is made entirely of icing, with white chocolate slices between the layers. Lastly, we ordered the raspberry tart, complete with fresh raspberry preserves in a crumbly cookie crust served with homemade vanilla gelato and an iced strawberry. It was my favorite of the three.
La Cucina does carry-out, but because everything is made to order, it is wise to call ahead. Dolly Jane and the staff make La Cucina’s ambience and service both friendly and exceptional, and Torri’s cookery is positively scrumptious. So pick up the phone, reserve your table, get in the car and take a drive up past the Butler Bridge to La Cucina Italian Kitchen.
La Cucina Italian Kitchen
6811 Highway 67W
Wed 5 p.m. – 8 p.m.
Thu – Sat 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 5 p.m. – 8 p.m.
Sun 11:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m.
Available on Facebook
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