Feb. 8 2013 05:44 PM

A little taste of Italy (without Little Italy)

Photo by Ian Cheesman

By all accounts, Cucina Urbana (505 Laurel St. in Bankers Hill) is not a place I'd ordinarily select when time comes to enjoy a beer. Everything from the warm hearth lighting to the incessant clinking of wine glasses telegraphs that the place isn't trying to cultivate business in the beer-swilling-misanthrope sector. It's just a little too inviting, frankly. 

The good news is that none of this is a head-fake. Cucina Urbana (CU) is most definitely not a traditional pillar of the San Diego beer experience. Odds are pretty good that you won't be able to get a pint of your favorite West Coast tongue-buckler here. There's no need for a chalkboard legend for the taps because there are only three of them. There isn't even a solitary beer-battered item on the menu. However, if you're one of those people willing to concede that there's a world of beer outside our fair hamlet, this place has something interesting to offer.

(One preliminary gripe: While I appreciate the depth of attention that went into cultivating CU's rustic-cottage aesthetic, all of the unfinished wood paneling strikes me as nothing more than a splinter-deployment system. I came here to savor some short-rib pappardelle, not be flanked at every turn by epidermal skewers.)

Ordinarily, my disdain for CU's pathetic tap count (or my crippling fear of splinters) would be reason enough to be wary of this place, but that doesn't tell the whole story. For all its apparent focus on wine and cocktails, it's also a unique portal into the Italian craft-brew scene. The restaurant features a suite of brewers—that are no less free-wheeling and inventive than our local counterparts—whom you're not likely to encounter elsewhere.

Take the Bruton brewery for example. It specializes in unfiltered, unpasteurized beers that embrace fruit and malt notes, making them very accessible. None really electrify your palate, but each delivered a nuanced experience that would beautifully accompany any of CU's antipasti. By contrast, Birra Amita's Contessa is an Italian pale ale capable of impressing local craft-brew enthusiasts on its own merits, but still approaches the sublime when paired with some delectable fried squash blossoms. 

Now, don't go mistaking me for a relativist in these matters. I believe San Diego beers in totality to be objectively better than most of what I experienced here. However, what CU offers is a marriage of beers and cuisine that are uniquely and beautifully tuned to one another. Like all good pairings, they achieve something greater than the sum of their parts. 

CU has one more unmistakable advantage to consider. It's a perfect beer night in date-night's clothing. If, like me, you're plagued with a spouse or significant other who's not a fan of the brew, your companion is probably wary of the innumerable gastropubs and tap warehouses you typically drag them to. This place, however, will easily masquerade as a destination chosen to embrace their needs, thereby earning you more credits to visit more brewpubs.

Cucina Urbana is the perfect destination for those who wish to expand their beer horizons or simply enjoy crafting white lies for their loved ones.

Write to ianc@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com. Ian blogs at iancheesman.wordpress.com and you can follow him on Twitter @iancheesman.


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