Sunday, February 27, 2011

Johnny Cucina Italiana

Johnny Cucina Italiana
#125 Zhongyang Road
Xindian, Taipei County
MRT Xiaobitan, Exit 2, turn right and walk a short distance
(yeah I know it's technically "Xindian District, New Taipei City" but you know what, screw that)

Five words to describe this place: yum yum yum yum yum.

Taiwan is overrun with Italian restaurants, and to be honest, most of them are a special kind of awful (including "We Make It Different" - yes, you certainly do make it "different", but by that you clearly mean like when you're 12 and decide to try your hand at fashion design and show your mom your hand-sewn frock and she says "Um,'s so unique and different").

Johnny Cucina Italiana is refreshingly different - in the good sense - from the other places which are merely "different". Run by an actual Italian chef who makes his own pasta noodles and pays close attention to flavor and detail, we enjoyed every moment of our meal there.

I haven't seen this place on any of the usual food review outlets popular with foreigners (including the Taipei Times reviews and Hungry Girl) - it was recommended by a student who studied in Belgium and knows his European fare, after mentioning in class how impossible it is to find good Italian in Taipei.

The meal started slow - honestly the "Salami" (typical cheese, meat and vegetable selection antipasto) appetizer was a bit of a let-down, but someone from the kitchen came out to explain that they didn't have a lot of the things usually served with it due to import issues (I gather that they import a lot of their vegetables from Australia which has suffered from all sorts of problems these days) and couldn't get the promised Parma ham, either. The items available - delicious, rich but not greasy salami and three kinds of high quality cheese were delicious. I did wish that by "olives" (in the menu description) that they'd meant real Mediterranean olives - my mom still observes the rich culinary traditions of Mousa Dagh on the Mediterranean coast so I know my olives, dammit, and "black and pimento" are not olives. They're posers.

However, we did get a free extra artichoke salad (the house dressing is lovely) as a result of them not having the entirety of the appetizer on hand, and a few items on the house with dessert, which made up for it. My advice? When ordering an appetizer, ask what's fresh and available and what's recommended and get that, instead of ordering blind. The staff will recommend something that they can serve fresh, and I can guarantee it will be tasty. If you order something that presents an issue, they will do their best to make it up to you. The server had suggested the salmon salad appetizer, and we would have been wise to follow her recommendation (but the salami and cheese were really good - that's worth remembering).

We also started with a glass of house red each - Brusco dei Barbi, a Tuscan wine. I know that one is "supposed" to drink white with pasta, but whatevs. We prefer red, so red is what we drank. My feelings on wine are "drink what you like and eat what you like", rather than listen to some expert tell you what you should and shouldn't pair with wine. Wine is about socializing, warmth and good times, not about "a full flavor of graphite, salmon roe, zesty minerals, elderberry liqueur and dark chocolate ganache" or whatever BS people make up about it.

Brusco dei Barbi is a light, dry but slightly fruity wine (without being syrupy or sweet in the least). It goes down easily without the slight burn of most dry reds, and manages a complex flavor without being too heavy. It is exceptionally balanced and frighteningly easy to drink.

For entrees, I ordered the Pasta con i Ricci - pasta made with sea urchin paste, cream, olive oil, white wine and other flavors, served with crabmeat. See, I always have to go for the richest, creamiest, most oddball-ingredient-intensive, umami-dense thing on any menu. It's just how I roll, baby. That, and I love sea urchin. I've been known to take the train to Keelung to the night market stand that has four different kinds of urchin and order it sashimi-style for $10 a pop, just to get my urchin fix. Sea urchin, for the uninitiated, is a taste extravaganza.

Brendan ordered the pasta parmagiane, figuring that it's such a basic dish that the chef's skills would really show through in the combination of simple ingredients.

Also on offer are pizzas, various pastas and a page of meat-based dishes including steak and duck leg. We intend to return to try one of the pizzas for my upcoming post on the best pizza in Taipei.

The pasta made up for whatever was lacking in the appetizer: the serving size appears initially small but I assure you it is not. The pasta dishes are deeper than they appear at first, and the servings more generous than the small amount of pasta visible when the dish arrives. My creamy sea urchin pasta was a bright yellow-orange and so rich and flavorful that my tongue might have exploded if I'd had even one more bite than what I was served. The flavors blended perfectly so that there were no distinct overtones of wine, garlic, onion, cream, olive oil or sea urchin, but they all sang in harmony to create a gorgeous, new flavor not unlike the blend of a high-quality perfume might blend several scents to create a unified new fragrance. For all its creaminess and depth of flavor, though, it was not heavy or overpowering, and the crabmeat was light and fresh.

For all the richness of my pasta, Brendan's was tart and springy in flavor. With a popping parmesan cheese (the real kind, not the scary powdered stuff from a cardboard tube) and a fresh, almost lemony tomato sauce, it was simple but delicious. It came encased in a "shell" of four ovals of perfectly roasted eggplant that looked so good I almost wanted to reach over and steal one. I practically had to slap my own hand to stop myself. Bad Jenna. Bad!

It is worth noting that both pastas were quite fresh and served perfectly al dente, and went well with more red wine - like I said, forget those people who say that pasta goes with white. Drink what you like and be proud.

For dessert, we got the flavor combo - a tiramisu and a brownie, with a cheesecake on the house (and some grappa). All three were ridiculously good - I felt like we could come and have a full meal just by ordering every dessert. The tiramisu was light, not too sugary, and soaked with liqueur as a good tiramisu should be. The cheesecake was rich and creamy, as cheesecake should be, with a crunchy but pliant chocolate crust. The Italian-style brownie was hands-down one of the best chocolate desserts I've had in Taiwan, ranking right up there with La Boheme's hot chocolate (note, the La Boheme I go to on Wenzhou St. is not the same as this La Boheme, which I've never been to). Heavy but not thick, with a crispy crust and deep chocolatey inside, and topped with real ganache, it's a delectable chocolate treat not to be missed.

All in all, great stuff. Stick with server recommendations on appetizers and you'll have an amazing meal at Johnny Cucina Italiana!


Kathmeista said...

This place sounds fantastic! I'm always on the prowl for a good Italian (and I have many debates with hubby about how TW style Italian just doesn't do it for me!) so I will be sure to check this out. Brilliantly detailed review too. Thanks!!

J said...

I'd almost think urchin was a code word for weed, seeing how you write about it.