Modest Maria Medoro says she hesitates to call her place a restaurant, since customers place their orders at a counter and she doesn't serve alcohol. She'd hate to disappoint anyone.
But for anything other than supper with a glass of wine, Medoro's got you covered. A cup of Lavazza macchiato with a fabulous pastry, a big salad, or an even bigger sandwich (relatively speaking), dinner to take home and heat up: For any of these, Italian-style, Birminghamites know where to go.
Cucina is definitely a restaurant, but I do regret that Medoro closes by 6 p.m. (Although any nonselfish instincts I possess should endorse a chef-owner's attempt at creating a livable life. Most toil at all odd and nonsocial hours, for the benefit of the rest of us.) Medoro serves seven tables while cooking everything from scratch and doing a brisk trade in fresh take-home lasagna and eggplant Parmigiana, at $9-$14 for two servings.
Her panini are enormous and made with bread baked on-site (gluten-free is an option).
(It's always awkward to write about panini. You don't want to write "a panini," which would be like saying "a sandwiches." But does it look pretentious to write "panino," which is the correct singular word?)
In any case, I loved Medoro's version of the New Orleans muffuletta (which was invented by Sicilian immigrants to that city). It's thick with capicola, salami, your choice of cheese, and a terrific mixed-olive spread spiced with hot peppers. (Medoro might consider turning that spread into another take-home product.) The prosciutto panino puts together three types of tangy: the meat, Parmigiano, and arugula, none overshadowing the others.
She also does grilled vegetable panini, or makes them with Italian sausage, salami, meatballs, or Caprese. I asked how she got decent tomatoes for the Caprese this time of year (or why would you bother?) and she said one trick was to leave the tomatoes, from California or Mexico, unrefrigerated.
They were bright red and just fine in a "primavera" salad: mixed greens, asparagus, mushrooms, artichokes, though I would have preferred a lighter dressing. An even better salad is "di rucola," arugula with twists of chewy prosciutto and fresh mozzarella and an assertive balsamic vinaigrette.
Medoro makes two classic Italian soups every day: stracciatella (chicken-and-egg) and pasta e fagioli. The latter is tomato-based and superthick with white beans and a lot of oregano. A third soup rotates and may not be Italian: chili, Polish potato pickle.
And she prepares entrée specials: a pork loin, perhaps, or stuffed peppers. I tried the latter and found the beef-rice stuffing thoroughly imbued with the sweet pepper flavors, and topped with a thick, rich tomato sauce. Another day, some three-cheese ravioli with a peach-colored Bechamel sauce were mild and soft comfort food.
Medoro offers San Pellegrino citrus drinks, which I adore — but not Chinotto, a new one on me. It's popular in Italy, and Medoro, who loves it, calls it "like Coke but bitter." The label sports a picture of an orange, and it's supposedly made from the juice of the myrtle-leaved orange, but all I got was bitter, especially the aftertaste. Be warned.
I was underwhelmed by a vegetable frittata — perfectly fine, but nothing extraordinary, and those potatoes were not hash browns. A breakfast panino would doubtless be better — eggs, bacon, provolone, and tomatoes — or French toast.
Medoro's standout course is dessert. There's tiramisu, of course, but try a wedge of Limoncello mascarpone, pale yellow, airy, but still solid enough to satisfy. (Limoncello is a sweet lemon liqueur.) Or ricotta cake, learned at the family bakery back in Abruzzo: The dough is stuffed with ricotta mixed with cinnamon, candied fruit, chocolate, and a little licorice. The pastry tastes like almonds and is just as delicious as the filling.
Medoro calls her cookie cake "more American" — it's like a very thick chocolate chip cookie, only more buttery, with white frosting in the middle. There are many more pastries to try, including a pistachio chocolate cake.
Cucina's patio out back is right by a stream that is part of the Rouge River. I can't imagine anything more pleasant than to sit there with a slice of something sweet, and if a glass of Barolo can't be had, I'll settle for Aranciata.