Vanina Meystre Pirollo is owner and chef of Cucina Vanina in the Cottonwood Heights area of Salt Lake City. If you’ve ever gone to the Cottonwood Wine Store near the intersection of Highland Drive and Ft. Union Boulevard, Cucina Vanina is across the street.
There are not a lot of frills; the restaurant is housed at the end of a strip mall and is airy and open with mixed blond furnishings and a large counter. I went on a Wednesday night and there was a nice, casual crowd and I was met, graciously by Vanina herself. This eating establishment revolves around the soul of her small and sparkling figure. Her eyes twinkle and flash as she talks to you about the food and about Napoli where she grew up. Vanina came to Utah because her husband is a scientist at the University of Utah, and you can tell she’s one of those restaurateurs who is in it for the fun and for the love of Italian cuisine. (It’s really the only way to make it in that business — if you do it to become rich — it’s like show business — you have about a thousand-to-one shot of really making it!)
Vanina has a tall, young waiter who shares her enthusiasm and spends a lot of time with each customer. These aspects of customer service are what make a visit to Cucina Vanina memorable, and I really enjoyed myself. Let me tell you about the food.
As a starter, Vanina brought out a small, sectioned platter that had imported olive oil in one section, very delicious Balsamic vinegar in another and a sort of Italian relish in another. The relish had an eggplant-ratatouille quality to it, and this came with a very generous basket of warm, soft focaccia bread. The bread was house-made, dusted with flour and very delicious.
Soon thereafter, the good-looking chef appeared again with a delicious salad surrounded by a thinly sliced Italian meat called Brescala. The meat was tasty and crisp and the rocket greens were dressed with Meyer lemon vinaigrette and ample slices of Romano cheese. My next course was a Napolitan pasta al frutti di mare—or seafood pasta. It was very beautiful, tasty and authentic. Large chunks of succulent salmon, big prawns, spaghetti, sauteed tomatoes and capres were all flanked by freshly cooked mussels—this was my favorite dish of the night.
I also tried a small plate of bow tie pasta with thin slices of salmon in a creamy saffron sauce topped with chopped herbs. Then Vanina said she was making a special dish from her home town which I was more that delighted to try. This dish reminded me of the German Rolladen or the French Paupiettes. Vanina takes very thin slices of beef and a thin slice of proscuitto and wraps them around a filling of mozarella. She serve this with a side salad and oven roasted potato wedges — it was very unique and truly like a trip to Italy — my only comment would be that I would have loved some marinara sauce drizzled over the roll-ups, since they were a little dry, but that probably would be authentic!
Before going to Cucina Vanina I stopped in to see my old digs, the newly remodeled wine store in Cottonwood Heights. I bought a bottle of a Spanish Rosé made from tempranillo grapes. It had a beautiful, rich color and a very full body for a rosé but I thought it had an odd sweetness in the finish and that tanic “bite” that I often get from tempranillo. Vanina tasted the wine and said she quite liked it.
For dessert Vanina brought me a sampler plate of a rich and gooey chocolate panna cotta which is set in a small amount of gelatin. The plate was painted with cream and chocolate syrup and there was also a sliver of her house-made tiramisu. The panna cotta was sprinkled with a thinly sliced chocolate cookie made from animal cracker crumbs and chocolate chips — they were beautiful and also an authentic recipe from the chef’s childhood.
If you haven’t been to Cucina Vanina, you need to go, if for only one reason—to meet the chef. She possesses that indefinable, European charm that so captivates Americans. The food is excellent and the prices, very affordable. I rate Cucina Vanina a well-deserved 91 points.