Weekends are “crazy” at this modern Italian restaurant.
CUCINA PAZZO FILLS A BIG FOOTPRINT in the Central West End. Two, actually. There’s the square footage—two large dining rooms plus an open kitchen and bar—and there’s the legacy of the space’s former tenant, Duff’s. Both are opportunities fully embraced by the owners of OG Hospitality Group, which runs several well-known restaurants around town.
American comfort food is the group’s forte—the Corner Pub and Grill’s two locations offer it as sports bar favorites; The Shack Pubgrub serves it up via massive burgers and sandwiches; and The Tavern has taken modern comfort food to the next level of gastronomy. With its first foray into Italian cuisine, the group has extended its niche. And after a few months’ learning curve, their “crazy kitchen” (as the name translates from Italian) is working, too.
ITALIAN COMFORT Of course, this being St. Louis, Italian is really just comfort food by another name. You see telltale signs of this on the Cucina Pazzo menu again and again. Take the house-made Italian sausage grinders at lunch, for example. Likewise, the dinner menu’s rustic papardelle are tender enough to fold over the braised beef without breaking apart but sturdy enough to hold up to eating with a fork.
With the newly introduced summer menu, chef Justin Haifley ventures into more ambitious entrées, too, emphasizing seafood in both the tasting boards, three or four variations on a protein theme like surf and turf or shellfish, and the fish market, where diners choose the species and match it with preparations like a pistachio lemon-herb crust or a dusting of fennel with sides of asparagus, saffron risotto and orange beurre blanc.
For a leisurely happy hour, there are appetizers like the ricconi (ricotta balls with flash-fried basil and crispy pepperoni), meatballs with polenta and cheese fondue or Sicilian-style mussels (accompanied by an encore appearance of Italian sausage).
Texture matters in Italian dishes, and risotto is a dish where errors are easy to spot. Cucina Pazzo’s is good, especially the Maine lobster risotto “carbonara” with two of our favorite add-ins: bacon lardons and peas. The house-baked rosemary mini-loaves offered to every table nail it in both flavor and texture. Then there’s the luxurious Nutella soufflé, exactly as velvety as it sounds.
SEE, SIP, SAVOR Scanning the rear dining room over a glass of wine, it’s hard to remember when the space looked any other way than it does now, with bright-yellow accent walls surrounded by wood paneling. We overheard other guests musing on the same tricks of memory—and at least one vigorously questioned her server on whether the room was ever even part of Duff’s. The bustling atmosphere may be part of the reason. It’s a popular choice for weekend gatherings of friends and family. Impressively, the staff’s energy level keeps pace.
The wine program is filled with Italian selections, which often require translation help to navigate the Old World varieties. If you’re looking to explore spirits or beer, a seat at the bar is an excellent idea, especially on busy weekend evenings— the bartenders are first rate. Sunday brunch is also well worth a visit.
But arguably the best spot to take in the ambiance is at the chef’s counter, where patrons can watch Haifley and company in action. He and the OGHG team have a knack for building a loyal clientele, and Cucina Pazzo’s shift toward more complex flavors and upscale proteins on the summer menu shows that they’re honing in on their Italian niche quite nicely—and they’re having fun doing it.
Photo credit: Jennifer Silverberg