Second Helpings

Slow Food

Although five staffers are milling about Cucina Leone, no one seems interested in helping us -- and we're the only takeout customers in the place. A cook paces back and forth in front of the grill in case some item must be prepared to order -- not that he's about to take that order. Finally, someone acknowledges our existence and asks what we'd like, setting in motion a mysterious process that involves all of the staff members walking away from the serving area and into other parts of the deli, where they stop periodically to gossip among themselves before returning to the display cases -- cases that happen to be full of food that's already prepared and would take about ten seconds to load into carry-out containers.

But ten minutes after we've placed our order, I realize no one is doing anything about it. I flag down a manager type to see if he'll help speed things up, which he does by ringing up my total and taking my credit card. Meanwhile, four people begin to slooooowly bag up $80 worth of food. A good forty minutes after walking into the empty place (did I mention that we were the only customers there?), we at last have our food. Or so we think: When we open the bag at home, we discover that two crucial items we'd paid for are missing.

Also missing: any sign that Cucina Leone realizes its service sucks.

When Cucina Leone first opened in 1994, it was billed as just a gourmet takeout spot catering to the Bonnie Brae neighborhood and points south. But the original owner, Jack Leone, soon moved out of state, and since 1996 it's been part of Boulder Concepts -- the company that also owns Spanky's Roadhouse, Bella Ristorante, Wazoo's on Wazee and the Giggling Grizzly. The new ownership soon expanded Cucina Leone's concept: In 1997, an elegant, in-house dining room was added. Over the years, Cucina Leone's head chefs have changed, too; the current one, Dan Barnes, has been on board a mere six weeks, and already he's upped the quality of food that was pretty good to begin with ("What a Way to Go," June 11, 1998).

But while the food is fine, and sometimes better than fine, the service outside the dining room doesn't even approach adequate. If I were chef Barnes, I'd be miffed, particularly since once the staffers finally get around to packing the to-go fare, they sometimes do a bad job of it. By the time we got home with our once-tender, juicy beef brisket ($9.95), a menu regular, it was dry from sitting out in an open container while a staffer tried to remember where he'd put the spoon for the excellent, hand-mashed potatoes ($2.95). Fortunately, the bolognese vegetable lasagna ($7.95) -- the kitchen always offers a lasagne of the day -- was very microwavable, so it was still a wonderful mix of thick, meaty sauce and soft, flavorful veggies, all layered with noodles. The roasted pork loin ($10.95), another menu constant, somehow retained a faint fatty taste and was slightly pink and succulent throughout. And since the vegetable sides (which range from $2.95 for individual portions to $8.95 for family-sized) are always steamed until just done, they were eminently reheatable, too, and emerged still vibrantly colored and fresh-tasting.

Barnes is just as adept at creating good beginnings and endings as he is entrees. The delicious curry-heavy tomato soup and the hearty, meat-packed beef couscous ($3.50 each) survived the trip home unscathed, and the desserts -- from rice pudding and turtle cheesecake to gingerbread cake and pecan pie (priced from $2.95 to $3.95) -- were every bit as delicious as they'd looked in the case. The wonderful breads -- check out what Cucina Leone calls "pizza" rolls, which are delightfully dense and chewy -- come from New World Bakery, and the gelato comes from Gelato d'Italia and Claudia's Ice Creams, both of which make unbelievably rich and flavorful products.

But you still have to wait a ridiculously long time if you want to take this great food home. Until Cucina Leone offers to-go service that matches what comes out of its kitchen, you're better off experiencing Barnes's cooking while seated in Cucina Leone's dining room. On a second takeout mission, I had to wait 45 minutes; on a third -- when all I wanted was a scoop of chocolate on a cone ($1.50) -- the solo act behind the counter kept telling me it would be "just a sec" while she finished doing some tallying on a piece of paper. That "sec" turned into a ten-minute wait, and once again, I was the only one in the to-go area.

Maybe there's a reason for that.



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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner