Quite frankly, the raw number of 5/5 reviews of this place speaks to two facts: #1) Too many people think of Olive Garden and Buca as ‘good Italian’ and simply haven’t been to enough quality Italian restaurants and #2) the Columbus Italian scene is severely lacking. With that said, Z Cucina is a good restaurant with some standout items, but the whole experience can be summed up in a single word: “Uneven.”
Although reservations were suggested they certainly weren’t required for 4 people on a Saturday night at 7:00pm in early August. Valet parking was a deal at $4 and we were seated promptly, yet unforunately half underneath a vent blowing cold air quite briskly…being that Z Cucina is actually an old fish store (the fantastic Byerley’s…RIP) there is a lot of unevenness to the room, ventilation, and layout. Water was served promptly and refilled rapidly….almost annoyingly, as the juvenile water boy bobbed and weaved around me like a young boxer…I eventually moved my glass to my non-dominant side to avoid this annoyance. Equally rapid and more annoying was our server, Chris, whose pseudo-Italianisms and meth-like delivery of the specials was akin to the micro-machine man moreso than to an experienced waiter. Certainly he knew the menu, but pace is the trick. Those issues aside, the food was pretty good….but once again suffered from unevenness.
First off, the bread, although served in 5 varieties from olive to rosemary to white to wheat was good but suffered from too much surface area (crisp) and not enough center (soft,) while the garlic butter was overpowering. Next up, the Z Tasting Plate with Bluefin Crudo, Ricotta Spinach Spread, Orange-Arugala-Fennel Salad, Calamari Fritti, Parmigiano Risotta Fritters, House Made Mozzarella. A ton of options for a mere $19, no item was bad, but the only one that truly stood out was the incredibly fresh crudo with melt-in-your-mouth bluefin tuna as fine as any high end sushi shop….the rest were relatively standard fare and the squid was tough/gummy.
For mains we selected:
1) Garganelle con Langostina with artisanal pasta, langoustines, sundried tomatoes, spinach, and seafood cream sauce — Decent with well done al dente pasta and great tomatoes, but notably shredded langoustine clearly from the body and not the claw. The cream sauce, noted to be light, was significantly briney and actually hindered the dish even for a seafood lover like myself.
2) Tortellini Gamberi with cheese, jumbo shrimp, asparagus, prosciutto di parma, lemon and butter — Great shirmp, delicious sauce, but poorly cooked Tortellini that was simply too tough for my palate, though my mother enjoyed it.
3) Cappesante al Forno Roasted scallops, grilled corn polenta, pickled pear tomatoes, red onions, and fennel — Incredible Scallops, well seared, and a deliciously creamy yet textured Polenta….yet completely offset by sour and acidic pickled tomatoes. This dish could have been amazing were it not for the tomatoes which unbalanced all aspects of the dish.
4) House Made Gnocchi with Pesto, shrimp, sweet tomatoes — The pesto was stellar, the shrimp plump, and the tomatoes delicious (the kind of tomatoes that could have made the Cappesante)….but as I’ve noted in the past, gnocchi is either done right or done wrong and this was UNEVENNESS at the max. Some pieces soft and perfect, others tough and gummy…and considering the griddle marks on the noodles I get the idea the chef was aware (grilling to firm up overcooked gnocchi gone soft is a ‘technique’ of sorts.) Disappointing.
For dessert, like many other Columbus staples, Jeni made an appearance in nearly every dish. Selections included:
1) Lavender Peach Tarte Tatin with Salty Caramel Ice Cream — Delicious and large with wonderful peaches and a crispy crust yet a perfect air of Lavender that greeted both the tastebuds and nostrils, this dish was further complemented by the wonderful dip of salty caramel at its center. A standout for sure amongst the choices, but not as good as that at Rigsby’s the night before.
2) Chocolate Crespelle with Black Currant Syrup, Hazelnuts, Basil — Interesting, like a baked crepe with 72% dark cocoa in the middle, but nothing special and neither the syrup nor basil were notable over the dominant chocolate tones.
3) Panettone Bread Pudding with Cherry Lambic Sorbetto — Undoubtedly better than the poor versions served at Lindey’s and Deepwood, this dessert was actually quite tasty. Then again, when you take a world famous bread, douse it in cream, and top it with award winning icecream, how can you go wrong?
4) Butterscotch Panna Cotta with Chocolate Hazelnut Biscotti — Their trademark dessert, this one was a glimpse of flawless evenness and wonderful taste. A thick top layer of butterscotch flan over a base of gooey caramel, the only thing that could have made this dish better was some beignets for dunking a la Michael Mina.
Coffee was Staufs and as Staufs always is, underwhelming, but refilled rapidly and at no extra charge.
All told, Z Cucina is a good restaurant in a trendy neighborhood, but needs some work. A four or five star Italian establishment should be elegant yet unpretentious, refined yet whimsical, and most importantly flawless in delivery of an experience. In my opinion, this Z seems like the sort of place where good and not-so-good flow minute-to-minute and that just isn’t the kind of place that breeds repeat business. Better overall experience and better dessert than Tucci’s or Trattoria la Tavola, but the food at Trattoria is slightly better overall. None of them are even remotely close to Rigsby’s, however.