The specter of Duff's hangs heavily in the air at Cucina Pazzo. From the rustic brick archway that separates the bar and dining room, to the gouges in the wooden floorboards that saw 41 years of footsteps, it is impossible to walk into 392 North Euclid without feeling at least slightly nostalgic for the building's former tenant which closed last June owing to financial difficulties. One gets the sense that Cucina Pazzo — or "crazy kitchen" — kept these details as a way to pay its respects and show a gentleness to the patrons who walk through its doors saying "We used to be regulars." Like the second wife of a widower, Cucina Pazzo seems to know that while it cannot replace the beloved past, it can create a memorable future.
Though it serves classic Italian fare, executive chef Justin Haifley (a 2013 nominee for Food & Wine magazine's the People's Best New Chef: Midwest) cannot resist using rustic American influences in his menu. Nowhere is that more evident than on the three different pork appetizers we tried. The pork rillettes — a pork-belly confit — was a succulent spread served on crostini like an Italian open-face pulled-pork sandwich. Its piquant jalapeño honey mustard and pickled red onion provided a nice contrast to the meat's richness. The "Pancetta di Pazzo" was a simple presentation of two half-inch-thick slices of the cured pork belly candied with a black pepper maple glaze. Apricot cherry mostarda provided the sour note that drew out the pancetta and maple's sweetness. The porchetta was my least favorite of the three — the breaded and fried pork belly was a touch chewy, and without the benefit of some sort of acid, the sunny-side egg made the dish heavy.
The chicken salsiccia appetizer came highly recommended by our server, and it didn't disappoint. This housemade sausage is a mix of chicken and pancetta with a dash of fennel, served on a bed of caramelized Brussels sprout leaves and drizzled with blackberry agrodolce (sweet and sour sauce). It was a meal unto itself. Mortadella corn dogs, served with beer cheese and jalapeño honey mustard sauces, were perfectly fluffy and light, although the meat component was sparse.
Cucina Pazzo makes the majority of its pastas in-house. Diners should not expect large portions, but the price accurately reflects the size. The rigatoni al forno pairs Italian sausage Bolognese with goat cheese and molten Fontina for a spicy and tangy treat. I had high hopes for the butternut squash mezzelune, another dish touted by our server. The half-moon shaped pasta had great texture, and the sage brown butter was a classic pairing. However, the pasta was light on the filling, and I wished the amaretti component was more pronounced. The lobster risotto contained generous chunks of lobster in a bed of creamy and well-cooked rice. That said, I expected a more robust flavor from the truffles and leeks, and the dish needed a little more seasoning.
The secondi piatti were the highlights of the meal. Haifley is known for his seafood, and the swordfish makes it clear why. This often-overcooked fish is moist and delicate at Cucina Pazzo. Lemon-caper butter, a sprinkle of fresh herbs, sautéed spinach and some roasted fingerling potatoes capped off a simple, perfectly executed dish.
The stracotto, or braised short ribs, were equally excellent. The braising liquid was reduced with apple and balsamic vinegar to form a sweet and savory glaze for the tender meat. The short ribs were served over Gorgonzola polenta, giving the plate a rich earthy undertone. Caramelized Brussels sprouts finished a plate that was nothing short of a masterpiece.
Of the two desserts we tried, the chocolate Nutella soufflé was (gasp) the least favorite. The soufflé itself was excellent, though it was more like a soft and airy brownie. Unfortunately, Cucina Pazzo smothers it under a big scoop of stracciatella gelato, whipped cream and sprinkles that made it seem like a cheap sundae. The lemon-ricotta fritters, on the other hand, were delicious in their simplicity. The soft doughnut-like pillows are served with two simple dipping sauces: limoncello lemon curd and blueberry compote. At our server's prompting, we cut the fritter in half, drizzled on both sauces and made a delightful little sandwich.
Patrons may walk into Cucina Pazzo with thoughts of the past, but they will leave reassured that the space is now filled with a restaurant that is worthy of its history. St. Louis won't soon forget the former occupant, but the new life that Cucina Pazzo breathes into the old building makes it worthy of new memories.