Italian class

Quattro Cucina adds some Mediterranean sparkle to Birmingham

Nov 18, 2009 at 12:00 am

Quattro Cucina, the new high-end Italian place in Birmingham, aims to create the feeling of old-fashioned service. When was the last time you saw a waiter crumb the table? (For once, I hadn't left any debris, but he went through the motions anyway.)

The place is crawling with attentive staff: A hostess greets you, another employee escorts you to your table. There are water pourers, of course, and a separate dessert waiter to explain your choices in detail, with translation if necessary or not necessary. The wine director may stop by (he eschews the term "sommelier"). The waiters wear the traditional short white waiters' jackets — and one even greeted us with "Buona sera" — good evening.

The space has been redone with high, curved banquettes in neutral tones, nothing to arrest the eye except some elaborate chandeliers. The main dining room is an awkward oblong shape accentuated by the hordes of servers hurrying by at all times.

On one Wednesday night, our party was the only one in which the gentlemen weren't wearing ties; it's more informal in the bar.

I don't know if high-end is what the northern suburbs were looking for "in this economy" — a phrase invoked to explain everything from shoe-buying patterns to Netflix picks. After all, the recession shut down Tribute and converted Five Lakes Grill into Cinco Lagos, now serving tacos and enchiladas. I thought the high rollers who still have their jobs were feeling they ought to play it safe — or at least were wondering if it was a bit unseemly to be spending so freely these days.

That said, the Cucina's food is wonderful, if not Tribute-level (nor quite Tribute-level prices). Dinner starts with warm and salty focaccia and dishes of bright yellow olive oil that tastes like — olives! A big deal is made out of filtered water, giving you the choice of that or something bottled. "Tap water," our party said resolutely, to make sure we wouldn't be charged.

All starters shine. A couple of antipasti are served family-style, as platters of assorted goodies, including a sausage tray. These would surely have been excellent, but I wanted carpaccio. It was served with lots of arugula — the perfect complement — a tiny hard-boiled quail egg, and sticks of Parmesan. If you never eat Parmesan except grated or shaved, believe that it really is eatable the way other cheeses are, in small doses. The bite of the cheese and the lettuce are perfect with the creaminess, may I call it, of the meat.

Also excellent were calamari served with balsamic and cherry tomatoes and peppers. The balsamic is a clever touch, sprinkled on the lightly breaded squiggles. Mussels are served with a bracing sauce that includes sausage.

All the usual adjectives apply to a potato-leek soup made with truffle oil: rich, creamy, buttery, velvety. It's hard for anything made with truffle oil not to be wonderful, of course. Salads include not only the usual but an asparagus and a fennel.

Queen of the starters, though, are the divers sea scallops. It's hard to remember that this melt-in-the-mouth bit of dreaminess is actually a muscle (the one that holds the two halves of the mollusk's shell together). At Quattro they kick it up a notch with a spicy Fra Diavolo sauce. If you've ever been disappointed by rubbery scallops, here is the place to renew your faith.

Our waiter suggested that instead of ordering a starter we split one of the primi — first-course pastas — instead. But we ordered the primi as main courses one night, and found that they are sized to be the actual amount you would want to eat in one sitting — no take-home.

Four of the pastas here are house-made — gnocchi, ravioli, tagliatelle and lasagna — and are therefore appropriately silky — no rubbery ravioli here. Although a manager assured me that the pastas were meant to play an assertive role in their dishes, as in Italy, the kitchen uses the high sauce-to-pasta ratio preferred by Americans. The tagliatelle Bolognese, with pork, beef and veal, for example, is a winner, cooked for hours so that the result is far more meat than any saucy element. I was told that customers who own homes in Italy swear to its authenticity. That and the popularity of the $70-for-two branzino should answer any questions about whether the wealthy are holding back in this economy.

Ravioli stagionali (seasonal) is stuffed with squash. The squash and Amaretto make this dish sweet, with a vanilla flavor. Although I liked it very much, it was really almost dessert-like. Crisp sage leaves added a little boost that offset the sweetness some. Gnocchi are served with wild boar in a red wine-tomato sauce, made tender with hours of braising.

Vegetarian lasagne is crisp on top and stuffed with spinach, porcini, carrots and eggplant; it's fine but not as exciting as other dishes. Thick slabs of swordfish (spada) are grilled and served with capers and olives. I can't vouch for the baked-in-salt branzino (European sea bass), but it's become a most-ordered dish, selling out every week. Osso buco ($32) with made-to-order al dente risotto is also popular.

Those not seeking a fancy evening out — perhaps just popping in before hitting the Palladium 12 next door — can order $12 pizzas. Wine by the glass ranges from $10 to $14.

Desserts are mostly Italian, such as wonderful, crisp cannoli, one filled with ricotta, one with mascarpone. Panna cotta is served with an excellent macerated fruit sauce that includes blueberries and grapes. It's contradictory to say that anything macerated could be fresh, but that's the impression this sauce leaves.

Gianduja refers to a chocolate-hazelnut mixture, and on the Quattro menu it's a complex, layered affair with a chocolate roof, mousse and whipped cream. I was somewhat sorry to hear that one of the bases was Nutella — there are higher-class giandujas — but the more sophisticated elements drown it out. What really makes this dessert shine is the salty element.

If you own a house in Italy, you may want to test Quattro Cucina's authenticity and remind yourself how far the Tuscan winter is from Birmingham's. If not, probably not.

Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].