According to the new owners of the Arizona Center, the Downtown Phoenix development, now just over a quarter century old, is about to experience a major transformation. Undeveloped pads will become home to new office towers, the complex’s street presence will be improved, and a combination of white and gray will be the new beige. Thankfully, the plans include no significant alterations to some of the Arizona Center’s existing strengths: its shaded gardens, its cooling water features, and the two prime restaurant spaces that overlook those amenities.
In fact, the portion of the Arizona Center that works best is not only building on its strengths, but also returning to its roots with the arrival of Cucina Cucina, a new Italian-American restaurant. Those who remember the Arizona Center circa 1990 may recall Lombardi’s, which thrived for several years before eventually yielding to the expanding (and now contracting) My Big Fat Greek chain. With the cuisine served in this space now returning to Italian influences, a sign proclaiming “pizza, pasta, and seafood,” apparently in storage all these years, has been resurrected.
Even if Cucina Cucina reuses the old Lombardi’s sign on its south wall (the one nearest Starbucks), it has otherwise refreshed the decor. There are weathered wooden tables around the dining room and globe lighting fixtures suspended from the ceiling. It’s not an Italian cliche of grape vines and checkered tablecloths, but the look is a good fit for what is essentially comfort food. The location in the heart of the Arizona Center is three blocks from either the Van Buren or Third Street light rail stations. Bike racks are found on the west side of the Arizona Center.
Cucina Cucina’s appetizer menu offers an extensive selection of shareable Italian-inspired favorites. Calamari is given extra zest with a side sauce of tomatoes and capers. Smoked salmon and shrimp sautéed in a sauce of wine, butter, and lemon feature prominently in other seafood starters. The simplest choice, and one appropriate for mopping up any sauce left from other dishes, is an order of focaccia. Basically, this is a disc of pizza crust given additional flavor with toppings of cracked pepper, rosemary, and pecorino and parmigiano reggiano cheeses.
Salads are sized as entrees but suitable for sharing. Caprese is a simple classic with its trio of ingredients — tomato, basil, and mozzarella — topped with a light drizzle of olive oil. The chopped salad is a mix of grilled chicken, chickpeas, lettuce, tomato, plenty of shaved parmesan is a creamy dressing. Insalata di pollo also blends poultry with greenery but with asparagus, kalamata olives, and a balsamic dressing playing a supporting role this time. The menu’s sole soup is minestrone, a little salty but with a pleasing al dente texture to the vegetables and beans.
Main dishes begin with familiar “red sauce” Italian-American favorites such as spaghetti e polpette, three well-seasoned meatballs over just-cooked-enough noodles with a lively tomato sauce full of slivers of garlic and bits of fresh basil. The lasagna is full of ground meat and ricotta between sheets of yielding pasta, although with the same pleasing tomato sauce rather than the bechamel listed on the menu. Rigatoni al forno is another hearty baked entree with resilient tubes of pasta in a chunky ragu full of sausage seasoned with oregano and fennel, all of it topped with fresh ricotta.
These entrees are available at both lunch and dinner, and during midday, many popular meals are discounted as lunch specials. There is some pricier and more ambitious fare such as osso bucco, the classic dish of braised veal shanks, available only at night. Likewise, the lunch menu features several panini and even a signature hamburger. Pomodoro basilico, tomato with basil, is a classic meatless sandwich, while costolette (roast beef) and tacchino (turkey) use the Italian pressed sandwich format as vehicle for enduring all-American lunch favorites.
At all times of day, there are half a dozen pizzas available with toppings ranging from pepperoni to a seafood mix of squid, shrimp, and scallops. The restaurant’s namesake Cucina Cucina pie is a class margherita pizza augmented with sliced prosciutto and leaves of arugula applied after it emerges from the oven. These pizzas are all serviceable, but given the number of quality pizzerias in Downtown Phoenix, it’s hard to imagine the restaurant becoming a destination just for pizza. Instead, it’s one option among many on a broadly-based menu of Italian-American favorites.
Cucina Cucina’s dessert menu lists an array of Italian restaurant favorites such as tiramisu and creme brulee. The best choice, though, is the moist, supple apple rum raisin bread pudding with bits of apple, juicy raisins, and a scoop of vanilla gelato on top. The restaurant has a full bar with a few craft beers on tap, a selection of Italian and American wines, and cocktails. Among the non-alcoholic beverages, a lemon mint green tea is a refreshing choice on a workday lunch break. Happy hour brings not only drink discounts, but also some lower pricing on selected appetizers.
The Arizona Center has sometimes struggled to make itself more contemporary and urban as the blocks surrounding it have been revitalized. The investment touted by the latest owners has the potential to accomplish at least part of that goal, but it’s also reassuring to see a return to some of the elements that made the Arizona Center a success in the early ‘90s. An Italian-American restaurant overlooking fountains and gardens was part of the formula back then, and, with Cucina Cucina’s presence, it can be part of the office and retail complex’s second quarter century.
455 N. 3rd St., Phoenix AZ 85004
Van Buren / Central or Washington / 3rd Street stations (westbound)
Van Buren / 1st Avenue or Jefferson / 3rd Street stations (eastbound)