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Downtown Cucinas Get Creative With Great Food

What I like about downtown Spokane’s two favorite cucinas is that they make no pretense about serving authentic Italian. Purists who hanker for a traditional, romantic Italian meal should look elsewhere. These two spots take all sorts of interesting twists and turns with their pizzas and their noodles. And both do it in lively, casual settings that play well to a broad audience, but are particularly appealing to families.

When Seattle-based Cucina!Cucina! opened this time last year, loyal Rock City customers wondered whether that homegrown restaurant could survive the competition.

Well, Rock City is doing just fine. In fact, I think the food has improved significantly since it first opened in 1992. I’m a sucker for the pizza at Rock City. The thin crust creations are baked in a wood-fired brick oven (the first in Spokane, a neon sign in the kitchen boasts), so it has a slightly smoky flavor. I’ve extensively explored the pizza offerings and keep coming back to the Thai pie - flavorful chunks of chicken, prawns, mushrooms and peanuts atop a spicy peanut sauce and topped with mozzarella. It’s a great mix of flavors. The only change I would make would be is to add fresh spinach to that list of ingredients.

A new favorite is the Santa Fe, which consists of pieces of juicy, lemony chicken breast, red onions, salsa and mozzarella. The ingredients were generously piled on, but not so thick that it was impossible to pick up and eat it with your fingers.

All Rock City pizzas are under $10 and can easily be shared by two, especially if you order a salad or an appetizer. I recommend Rock City’s Caesar, which isn’t the classic preparation, but a nice, creamy rendition.

On the munchies list, I’m fond of the oven-roasted veggies (ask for some of the garlicky aioli sauce on the side) and ordered the calamari offered on a nightly special. Its zesty breading was a cut above the usual flavorless flour coating.

During a recent dinner, I was pleasantly surprised to find at least one of the more upscale specialties lived up to its menu description. The wood-oven-roasted prawns ($13.95) were cooked to sweet, succulent perfection. And they had a subtle citrus-smoky flavor. The butterflied prawns were served with a salad and an ample portion of oven-roasted red potatoes that were crisp and nicely seasoned.

The only slight disappointment during my visits was a bowl of overcooked tomato and herb pasta ordered from the menu’s “Fat - Not” section. I’ve had it and liked it before, but this version was flat-tasting - lots of tomatoes and very little herbs, unless you count slivers of green onions.

The sometimes-raucous bar at Rock City has become a hot spot with its ever-rotating wine list and 13 Northwest microbrews on tap. Try getting a spot in there on a Friday night. But even when the place is jammed, the service has been unfailingly polished at Rock City - friendly and helpful, without being intrusive.

At Cucina!Cucina!, the servers also do a laudable job of explaining the extensive menu. (They sing “Happy Birthday” in Italian to celebrants, too.)

I grudgingly have to admit that I’ve become a regular customer at this bright, boisterous restaurant, especially when my 4-year-old daughter gets to choose the venue. She likes the ever-changing assortment of toys that come with the coloring book menu almost as much as she enjoys the pint-size cheese pizza.

My reluctance to declare my frequent flier status on Air Cucina has to do with a long-held notion that corporate-driven kitchens at chain restaurants produce less-than-inspired food. But, happily, Cucina!Cucina! is on its way to convincing me otherwise.

Having sampled my way around the menu, I’ve come up with some favorites.

On the appetizer list, I love the calamari. As a seasoned squid lover, I’ve found this version top-notch. The huge portion ($6.45) can be split among four as a starter. It earns bonus points in my book for including plenty of crispy tentacles in addition to the traditional chewy rings. The calamari is served with a marinara sauce in addition to the standard garlic-spiked mayo.

I like the Caesar salad despite the fact that it’s served on whole leaves. I’ve tried, as the servers suggest, picking the romaine leaves up with my fingers and munching on it whole, but I’ve decided salad without cutlery is best left to the likes of Peter Rabbit.

Pizzas are served with a selection of traditional (four cheese, sausage and pepperoni) and “nuove” toppings (Asian chicken, topped with an Oriental salad, and a Cobb with bacon, avocado, pesto and Gorgonzola cheese.)

Give me the barbecued chicken pizza any old time. The soft, chewy crust is slathered with a spicy barbecue sauce and pieces of chicken. The pie is topped with mozzarella, smoked gouda and grilled red onions. At the risk of infuriating the Colonel, this stuff is finger-lickin’ good.

Among the pasta dishes, the wild mushroom fettucine is a fine cross between marinara and spicy puttanesca. Along with button mushrooms, pieces of portobello or shitake and briny kalamata olives are suspended in a garlic-basil seasoned tomato sauce. It’s finished with cream, but I always ask them to hold the extra calories and the dish doesn’t seem to suffer a bit.

At a recent dinner, my companion was impressed with her linguine with clams. And this woman is a clam connoisseur. The tiny bivalves were served still in their shell and were tender, not chewy. She raved about the tasty white wine sauce flavored with garlic, lemon and prosciutto.

I’ve had less success in the past with the house specialities. Entrees such as breaded Parmesan chicken and linguine with Italian sausage just don’t appeal to me. I’ve tried a couple of seafood dishes, but they weren’t memorable enough to make me skip the barbecue pizza.

Save room for dessert. Chocoholics will not be disappointed by the rich chocolate mousse cassis cake. I am sorry to see, though, that they have dropped the selection of cookies, the only “light” dessert offered.

The bar at Cucina!Cucina! also cooks most evenings. The cheap happy hour prices on pizza and a few other menu items are definitely worth checking out.

As much as I like these two downtown trattorias, I have a couple of gripes that apply to both. It bugs me to have to pay $3 extra for bread, especially when I’m served pasta. And on at least one occasion, the loaf of Toscano bread at Cucina!Cucina! was not hot from the oven, as the menu advertised, but rather stale tasting.

At Rock City, you have the option of ordering one-quarter of a focaccia for 95 cents, but that means a reasonably priced $5 pasta lunch is now up to $6.

Also, both places play insipid background music. At Rock City, it’s like a mainstream rock Muzak. At Cucina!, it’s endless versions of “Amore” and “Volare.” Fortunately, the crowd din blocks out the tunes most of the time anyway.

But the good - including nice services such as validated parking in specific downtown garages and affordable kids’ menus (children eat free on Sundays at Rock City) - far outweigh those minor annoyances.

, DataTimes MEMO: These 2 sidebars appeared with the story: 1. Cucina!Cucina! 707 W. Main, 838-3388 2. Rock City Cucina Italiano 505 W. Riverside, 455-4400

The following fields overflowed: SUPCAT = COLUMN; RESTAURANT REVIEW - Checking back

These 2 sidebars appeared with the story: 1. Cucina!Cucina! 707 W. Main, 838-3388 2. Rock City Cucina Italiano 505 W. Riverside, 455-4400

The following fields overflowed: SUPCAT = COLUMN; RESTAURANT REVIEW - Checking back