Durham’s newest Italian joint, Cucciolo Osteria, is technically a franchise, but don’t look for them popping up on I-40’s frontage road. The sister location in Seoul was founded in 2015 by Julian Kim as one piece of a mini-empire of popular Italian eateries in South Korea’s capital. Julian’s cousin, Jimmy Kim, a Duke grad and local restaurateur, suggested opening a second location in Durham’s West Village. With Julian’s blueprint and blessing, Jimmy took on the duties of owner and executive chef, opening the Durham outpost of Cucciolo Osteria last summer. Inspired by simple Roman cooking, Cucciolo’s menu tends toward the elegantly unfussy, a recital of hearty, comforting dishes in which one or two ingredients are given the spotlight.
Vibe: West Village restaurants often stray toward a 2007 version of Durham chic—lots of brick, snaking ductwork, and electrical conduits. Cucciolo is no different, but the rawness of the space works with the restaurant’s minimalist decor. The deep, narrow dining room is dominated by an inviting bar, with intimate two- and four-tops in lockstep along the opposite wall. The fixtures and furnishings are spare, but the stylishly warm dimness of the lighting makes the space feel cozy and romantic. Service can be slightly inconsistent, but the staff’s genuine warmth smooths out any rough edges.
Menu: If Cucciolo is intended to feel like a night out in a Roman piazza, it’s got the menu down pat. Stalwart categories steer the course of the evening: Enticing small bites such as bruschetta kick things off, then small, shareable antipasti, such as carpaccio and pâté precede primi—in this case, a large and inviting list of pastas. Finally, secondi, shareable large plates of meat, poultry, and North Carolina-caught fish, and traditional desserts, such as tiramisu, close out the night.
What to order: The pro move at Cucciolo is loading up on a table-creaking assortment of small plates and pastas. An order of bruschetta, particularly when topped with burrata and roasted hazelnuts, is an excellent (and vegetarian) starting point. Carnivores: don’t sleep on the filet mignon beef carpaccio. That old standby may be decades removed from its big sexy moment, but Cucciolo’s expert version argues for a carpaccio renaissance. Shaved diaphanously thin, raw beef is dolloped with a brilliant, lemony aioli and an earthy truffle paste, then drizzled with olive oil. From there, move on to the pastas, which are generously portioned. The linguine all’Amatriciana is a sauce-heavy take on the classic, and its assertive interplay between salty guanciale and anchovy-kissed tomato sauce is deeply satisfying. The seasonal truffle tajarin—tiny noodles bound in a heady paste of black truffles—make the evening feel like an occasion. Get it while it lasts.
Cucciolo also has the makings of a great bar program. My cocktail, a note-perfect take on the classic Vieux Carré, was complex and appetizing, its subtle bitterness an excellent intro to a huge Italian meal. When it comes to wine, a little hunting reveals some decent options among the list’s lower-priced bottles. As a former wine industry pro, I’d like to see Cucciolo move away from point-driven “prestige” wines in favor of smaller producers and more rustic wines that reflect and enhance the graceful simplicity of its cooking.
Price: Small bites and antipasti range from $7 to $13, the carpaccio is $17. Pastas are $13 to $20. Large plates are $19 to $30.
Perfect for: A casual date night, a leisurely dinner with old friends, or a solo good-book-and-pasta-fix at the bar.