Tre Cugini

(Grand Rapids, MI) When our good friends JoJo and Ivy suggested we all get together for dinner at Tre Cugini, downtown Grand Rapids, it seemed the perfect idea for the next review. After all, what better way to enjoy "authentic Italian cuisine" than with the people who vacationed in Rome with us! We bundled up against the blustery January evening and headed out for another adventure with our fellow foodies...

He Fed:
To be honest, I am not very excited about tonight's dinner. I've been to Tre Cugini twice in the past, and both times have been underwhelming. Not bad, mind you...just fallen short of expectations. I take Juliet's arm and walk her from the nearby parking lot to the entrance. It is cold and windy, and we are glad to get inside. There is the requisite awkwardness at the host stand, where we must suggest they take our coats.

Our dinner companions have not yet arrived, so we stroll to the bar and order a couple glasses of Lunetta Prosecco Brut Trentino-Alto Adige to sip while we wait. (More and more, I find myself enjoying a nice glass of bubbles before dinner. It eases the mood, enlivens the palate, and awakens appetite.) Unwisely, we choose the seats nearest the entrance so when more people come in, the icy wind outside sneaks through the vestibule and hits us, shivering. We move seats deeper into the warm restaurant.

Already our bartender is a tad overwhelmed by the Saturday night influx of diners, so by the time our drinks arrive so have JoJo and Ivy. We wave across the room as their coats are taken, then the hostess leads us all to a table near the back of the dining room.

Thanks to their website (and because none of the nightly specials interest me), I already know what I want. Well, I should say I have a good idea what I want. Because I've become much more adventurous lately, I'm leaving my choices open to whatever the group wants. For an appetizer, I'm open to either the Frittura di Calamari or Ostriche Fritte Impanato con Polenta All'Aoili (fried oysters). Everyone seems to like the calamari idea so we go with that, as well as the Bresaola della Valtellina con Tallegio e Carciofi Martinati (cured beef with cheese, artichokes, crostini) and Mozzarella e Pomodori alla Caprese (cheese with tomato and marinated bell peppers). Initially, I am a bit disappointed in the calamari. I am hoping they are tossed and coated with the tangy marinara sauce, but it comes on the side. Otherwise, the calamari is offered much the same as elsewhere. The taste is good and the preparation is decent. There is a bit of springiness here and there, but it's not bad. Solid calamari, overall, but not spectacular. The Bresaola, however, is really really good. It's easy to make a little sandwich out of the components, and the slightly greasy meat coats your mouth in a most pleasant way. On the opposite side of the spectrum, the mozzarella is amazing as well. Creamy, smooth, and fresh (made in-house!). It is comforting and contagious. I want more, but I'm not going to horn in on our vegetarian's only app. I am keeping my eye on the plate, though, just in case she gets too full.

I should mention here that I spent considerable time choosing a wine to go with the appetizer course. The details about which wine goes with what, which vintages are best, which regions are considered "in"...I fall down on all that stuff. It just doesn't stick in my mind that well (or, probably closer to the truth, I haven't given it due diligence). But, tonight, I wanted to be prepared and hopefully surprise our friends with a decent choice, for once. I pored through different articles on the internet. Since I already knew we were probably going to order the calamari (it's a crowd-pleaser) and artichokes were almost always on the menu in an Italian restaurant, I focused on those two components. Across the board, Chianti was the preferred recommendation. Not surprising, I guess, but my gut would have avoided Chianti (it just sounds so cliche, right?). After checking their wine list, I chose the 2004 Rocca delle Macie Chianti Reserva. Everyone seemed cool with it, so that's what we ordered. I really enjoyed the interplay of vanilla and dark chocolate in the nose, and a slightly ashy taste at the back end. Some spicy notes as well. Overall, a very bright and lively Chianti, much better than some of the Classico varieties we've stocked at home.

For the main course, I have eyes for only one dish: Risotto con Salsiccia di Maiale, Gorgonzola e Pistachio. A rather unassuming shallow bowl arrives with a calm pool of risotto pasta flecked with grey-brown bits of pork sausage and verdant islands of pistachio nuts. My first bite is salty, meaty, crunchy, and luscious on the tongue. With my second bite, I begin to have flashbacks and I have to look around frantically. This is Grand Rapids, right? Have I gone back in time? With JoJo and Ivy at our table and this Authentic Italian Cuisine (trust me, this deserves Caps) in front of me, surely we've been transported back to Rome? The risotto is so perfectly prepared, it might as well have come from the kitchen of some trattoria on a side street in Rome. My only complaint (and it is a very light complaint), I expected more punch from the gorgonzola. JoJo, too, finds her gorgonzola gnocchi lacking that punch.

Thankfully, JoJo accepts responsibility for the main wine selection, and her choice is spot on. Although the wine list in-house shows a 2001, we are told the list is out of date and they only have the 2003 San Marcellino Rocca di Montegrossi...which we're told is every bit as good as the 2001. Riiiiiiiiiight. Our doubts dissipate, however, upon the first sip. (Further research reveals this is a Sangiovese blend Chianti Classico from Tuscany, so no wonder it goes so well as a follow-up to the Chianti we had with our app.) The big sweetness and licorice aftertaste tames my fatty pork dish so well, I find myself taking a bite, taking a sip, taking a bite, taking a sip...

Despite initial misgivings, my qualms over Tre Cugini's previous missteps are nearly gone. Food is good to great; service is likewise. Prices are perhaps slightly high, but when they hit a high note, they really hit it. We opt to bundle back up after settling the bill and head home, where Juliet has baked a pear tart and intends to whip some cream. There might even be a good bottle of Italian wine left in the cellar, who knows?
She Fed:
It feels like decades since we've seen JoJo and Ivy and I'm very excited for tonight. It's not until we arrive that I remember the last time we came to Tre Cugini was with them as well. I also remember Jeremy was not remotely impressed with the restaurant and, even though I enjoyed it, we've never been back. I'm hoping tonight will change his mind because I love Italian fare and Tre Cugini is close to home.

Jeremy and I order a glass of Prosecco at the bar and it arrives just as our friends walk in. Once we're seated, there's much catching up, followed by lively debate on the menu...which appetizers to share, who's ordering what for dinner, should we split some salads, etc. You get four passionate foodies at the table and it takes forever to order!

We decide to start with three appetizers: the deep fried calamari with marinara; the fresh house made mozzerella with roasted tomatoes and marinated bell peppers; and the bresaola with tallegio, artichokes, and crostini. Jeremy's been on a calamari kick for 18 months, ever since we had mind-blowing calamari in Sonoma, and since then we've eaten our way through more than our fair share of mediocre calamari. Tonight's is good, but not great. In all fairness, I'm not sure any restaurant can compete with calamari dusted in Italian cheeses and flash-fried to order by a chef friend out West. We might be measuring all others with impossibly high standards.

The fresh mozzerella with the tomatoes and peppers is delightful. I love when eating cheese feels virtuous! I'm ready to eat the entire platterful until I remember we've got a vegetarian at the table who can't partake in the other two offerings.

I've been obsessed with tallegio since we went to Rome (also with JoJo and Ivy) a few years ago and I'm more excited about the tallegio garnish than the bresaola. It's hard to find bresaola around here. I suspect the process of curing and air drying beef is timely and expensive. Perhaps there's not a huge demand for it in Grand Rapids either? I take a slice of the beef and wrap it around a cube of tallegio and part of an artichoke heart. It's lovely. My one complaint with this dish is that they put three crostinis on an appetizer platter for four people. Would it really cost too much for our server to toss one more crostini on the plate?

I'm feeling the need for more veggies tonight so I order the arugula and pear salad with Parmesan cheese and a lemon olive oil dressing. The baby arugula is tender, peppery, and contrasts nicely with the pear slices. The big shards of Parm give it a nutty bite while the dressing is low-key. I adore arugula salads and remind myself to make them more often. Why is it restaurant salads are so much better than what I concoct at home?

There are way too many entrees to choose from on the menu. Fish, steak, pasta—it all sounds wonderful tonight. I'd been planning to go with pasta, but instead decide to go with the Branzino, a fish from Northern Italy often sold as Mediterranean or European seabass. I had branzino last fall in Manhattan and fell in love with its light buttery flavor. Tonight's is listed as "grilled whole or cleaned boneless". I ask for it cleaned as I'm not in the mood to deal with a couple of eyes peeking up at me from my plate tonight.

One of my pet peeves is "surprising textures" in foods. A hunk of cartilidge-riddled meat in a soup or stew, an unpitted olive in a group of pitted olives, that sort of thing. So when the first three bites of my fish have multiple bones in them, I begin to panic. There's not a few bones, but rather a lot of bones and it's such an unpleasant experience that my throat actually begins to close up. My mind is racing. Do I send it back? Ask for something else? How can I handle this to avoid any awkwardness for the table?

I concentrate on the grilled asparagus, which is lightly charred from the flames and absolutely divine. I move on to the roasted new potatoes with their salty crust and steaming pulpy insides. Then there are the lovely little olives, piccholines with pits intact. (If I know there's a pit in there it's not a surprise.) My favorite bite is a little piece of asparagus, some potato, and a tidbit of the briny olive. Yum.

So by now I've demolished most of the veggies and I have this damn bony fish on my plate. I decide to give it one more go, and lo and behold there are no bones. Then a bone-free second bite, and a third. Whew, I seem to be in the clear. Now I can concentrate on enjoying the fish instead of picking bones out of my teeth. Exactly as I had before, the branzino is white and flaky with a clean, lightly buttery flavor.

When the four of us dine out, typically JoJo and Jeremy are in charge of selecting the wines. I'm happy to just sit back and enjoy the ride and they always make great choices. Tonight Jeremy chooses a Chianti to pair with the appetizers, primarily because his online research earlier in the day mentioned it will go well with calamari. Surprisingly enough it works well with all three apps as well as our salads. To go with dinner, JoJo selects a Rocca di Montegrossi and again it compliments our entrees. (I should mention JoJo ordered the four cheese gnocchi and Ivy the halibut.) Remember when old school wine thinking would have dictated white wine for Ivy and I because we were having fish? I love those rules being chucked out the window.

Despite the bones in the fish that was supposed to be "cleaned boneless", I enjoy dinner and would return to Tre Cugini again. Our server is helpful and personable. The wines JoJo and Jeremy picked go well with all of our varied dishes and are reasonably priced. We will go back, but I might stick with pasta next time.

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