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Cottonwood Heights • As my final meal at Cucina Vanina drew to a close, I overheard the chef waxing lyrical to a nearby table about Italian dining. He eagerly explained how an Italian dinner never takes less than an hour, and is always filled with great food, conversation, wine and relaxation. That's the experience that executive chef Vanina Pirollo has set out to cultivate in her Cottonwood Heights restaurant.

Originally from southern Italy, Pirollo began her local culinary career as a personal chef. About three months ago she took the next logical step, opening Cucina Vanina to share her passion for central and southern Italian cuisine with lucky Utah diners.

The restaurant can be difficult to spot at first, as it's tucked away at the end of a strip mall. Once you spy the restaurant, though, parking is a breeze in the large lot. The interior space serves as a mini-grocery, deli and café by day before offering dinner in the evening. The décor is refreshingly modern, with plenty of contemporary blond wood and functional furniture. Among two- and four-top tables sit larger communal tables, while a small outside space offers al fresco dining.

The dinner menu follows the traditional Italian meal structure: antipasti (appetizers), insalate (salad), primi piatti (pasta and rice), secondi piatti (meat and fish) and dolci (dessert).

Portion sizes are generous, so you might consider bringing friends and family to work your way through the menu. Those big family-sized tables start to make a lot of sense.

Dinner at Cucina Vanina starts with a complimentary bowl of fresh-baked focaccia, served with a stunningly fruity olive oil and zippy balsamic vinegar. The olive oil, imported directly from Pirollo's family plantation in southern Italy, is $24.99 (25 fluid ounces).

I recommend proceeding with the bountiful piatto di antipasti ($10.99 at lunch; $13.95 at dinner), centered around slices of mozzarella and tomatoes. Encircling the deliciously creamy cheese and fresh tomatoes, there's olive tapenade, pickled onions, vibrant green pesto, olives and thinly sliced meats in the form of salami, prosciutto and mortadella. More bread is served, too: Bruschetta Napoletana ($6.95) thankfully avoided the common pitfall of being teeth-crackingly hard.

The housemade bread arrives topped with a splendid mix of mozzarella, salty anchovies and (not listed on the menu) prosciutto. For something more summery and light, try the gamberetti al limone ($7.50) — a plentiful bowl of tiny salad shrimp coated in olive oil, lemon juice and parsley, which makes a bright, light appetizer.

I'm happy to report that every pasta dish I sampled came to the table perfectly cooked. Rigatoni all'amatriciana ($16) was a heaping mound of rigatoni in a snappy tomato sauce topped with Parmesan, and two housemade Italian sausages. Specials change daily, and one you won't want to miss — it's often served on Tuesdays — is the luscious four-cheese ravioli ($9.50; $15.99), five plump pasta dumplings loaded with Asiago, ricotta and Parmesan, nestled in a light cream sauce.

My favorite pasta dish was the pasta e polpette ($9.99; $16.95), spaghetti bathed in a classic tomato sauce and served with two of Pirollo's meatballs. Some might balk at the price for such a humble dish, but I would pay that every day when it's executed with such quality.

On one of the kitchen staff's visits to our table, the cook proudly explained that the meatballs are simmered carefully in the sauce for over an hour. And what a sauce, too, elegantly simple, bursting with tomato flavor, and never veering off into "too sweet" territory (available by the jar for $5.99).

This was just one of the many moments during my meals were I experienced the excitement and pride the restaurant staff have for their menu. On another visit, I overheard a server detail the origins of carbonara to a rapt audience.

Secondi provide smaller meat and fish selections, in fitting with the grander Italian meal structure. Polpette di tonno ($17.95) simply comprised of four tuna meatballs and a lightly dressed side green salad. The tuna meatballs are made by pressing quality water canned tuna dry before re-invigorating with olive oil.

Zuppa di pesce ($20.95) was a mix of scallops, squid, prawns and mussels, swimming in a savory tomato-based soup. I was apprehensive that the seafood might be too chewy, but the preparation was excellent. The dish also came served with rounds of crispy bread to mop up all of the wonderful soup.

Finally we reached the dolci, which I urge you not to skip at Cucina Vanina. Panna cotta con frutta ($5.95) was beautifully silky and rich, topped with a tart contrasting layer of blackberries. A battle of spoons threatened to erupt at our table over the espresso-rich housemade tiramisu ($6.95), utterly heavenly and light.

The star of dessert, however, proved to be the gelato (one scoop, $3.90; $5.95, three scoops). Two different local Italian purveyors create the gelato and, according to the chef, still follow exacting traditional methods such as turning the gelato an equal number of times clockwise and counter-clockwise.

Given the craft nature of the suppliers, selection changes on a daily basis. Over my visits, I tried a sensational strawberry gelato that will surely ruin all other strawberry ice creams for me again. The lemon gelato was eye-poppingly zesty, while the pistachio was first rate, too.

Throughout my meals, I encountered friendly and fast service, as the wait staff seemed keen to ensure our meal was ticking along enjoyably with extra bread, oil, water or even a friendly chat never more than a moment away.

On more than one occasion I found myself musing on how dinner at Cucina Vanina was akin to dining at a good friend's house with family and friends. As I departed after my last meal, I couldn't help but notice the restaurant's slogan is "A culinary trip to Italy," something I found confirmed in every bite of food and interaction with the amiable staff.

Salt Lake Tribune restaurant reviewer Stuart Melling blogs at Send comments about this review to or post a response at —


Cucina Vanina

Food • HHH

Mood • HH

Service • HHH

Noise • bb

Cucina Vanina offers the traditional Italian dining experience — not just great Italian cuisine, but also a relaxed atmosphere and convivial hosts. In the daytime, stop by for quicker eats or a cup of imported espresso before browsing the small grocery section of Italian products.

Location • 1844 Fort Union Blvd., Cottonwood Heights; 801-938-9706

Hours • Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., 5:30 to 9 p.m.

Children's menu • No

Prices • $$

Liquor • Beer and wine

Corkage • $15

Reservations • Accepted

Takeout • Yes

Wheelchair access • Yes

Outdoor dining • Yes

On-site parking • Yes

Credit cards • All major