I admit it: I am enthusiastic about family-run restaurants of any kind, but Italian restaurants most of all.

This preference on my part comes from my upbringing north of the Mason-Dixon Line, and my experiences dining with my family at our favorite neighborhood restaurant. While most Italian restaurants these days seem to offer variations of a “canned” serving of atmosphere, food and service, few, a very few can be found who are still doing it “Old School.”

One of the best is Matteo Torri’s “La Cucina Italian Kitchen.”

First impressions

La Cucina Italian Kitchen can be found on Tennessee Highway 67W, the road to or from Mountain City. Owner Matteo Torri has expanded seating in the restaurant’s white frame building, with two airy and comfortable dining rooms and a shaded back porch and a seating capacity for 24 hungry patrons, Entering the restaurant finds one in Torri’s open plan kitchen, with a big family-capacity dinner table on your right. The restrooms are farther along and to your left.

In addition to being proprietor, La Cucina’s Torri is also the restaurant’s chef. Torri is known for his strict adherence to the principles of proper Italian cookery. The authenticity of his menu items requires his making frequent trips back to Italy for supplies. La Cucina’s wait staff is not just friendly, they are family-friendly. My favorite server Dolly has returned to La Cucina, and can be found teaching her people skills to the rest of the wait staff.

Chicken Pizzaiola — Daily Special

Our friend the Retiree, back in town after another cross-country trip, was eager to get some of chef Torri’s version of “road food” into her and re-tune her taste buds to their former level of sophistication. Her choice for supper was one of Torri’s Daily Specials, Chicken Pizzaiola, ($17.50). Though labeled as being chicken “served as you would pizza,” Torri’s take on this Bolognese classic is to use a trimmed chicken breast, breaded and then fried in olive oil. The chicken is then topped with a blend of parmesan and mozzarella cheeses as well as some slices of sun-dried tomato and then baked until bubbly. The result looks very much like an irregular slice of pepperoni pizza, but tastes like a slice of heaven itself. Add to this a salad of cold, crisp and fresh mixed greens drizzled with the house’s lemony vinaigrette and our friend had something truly special on her plate this evening.

Shrimp Linguine

My dining partner wanted something simple and seafood, and found it in Torri’s Shrimp Linguine ($8.50). Here, Torri takes some 18 count-sized shrimp, kisses them with a hot skillet swirled in a bit of olive oil, and tosses them with a nicely herbed serving of scratch-made linguine noodles. This is a simple, savory entrée, and is especially good with a crust of Torri’s excellent Italian bread used as a scarpina (Italian for “little shoe”) for my dining partner to clean up every drop of the sauce.

Lasagne House Special — Five Cheeses, pasta Bolognese, tomatoes, parmesan, mozzarella

I chose Torri’s other Daily Special, that being the Lasagne, a stack of scratch-made Laganon-style noodles, interleaved with several Italian cheeses and Torri’s own recipe for Bolognese sauce of tomatoes, onions, garlic and, is that nutmeg I tasted? With some Italian mozzarella cheese to hold sauce and noodles in place, my lasagna was baked in its own single serving porcelain baking dish, topped with parmesan cheese, a sprinkling of freshly torn basil leaves as a garnish and served to me hot from the oven. With a couple of scarpina-sized crusts of La Cucina’s excellent Italian bread to go with my lasagne, I was one very pleased diner.

The bottom line

If there was ever a restaurant that is truly vale la pena guidare (“worth the drive”) to get there, it is Mountain City’s La Cucina Italian Kitchen. Chef and owner Matteo Torri has every reason to be proud of what he has accomplished, whether it is La Cucina’s lovely location in the mountains of Tennessee’s High Country, the restaurant’s remarkably varied menu that changes almost on a daily basis, and a wait staff that is known for its friendliness and professional demeanor.

Though cash is La Cucina’s only mode of exchange, what that cash will get you both in atmosphere, service and gustatory pleasure is worth a trip to your ATM.

Friends, you will not be disappointed with anyone or anything at La Cucina Italian Kitchen.

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