La Cucina’s service is slow, but caring, and the food’s uneven, but in spots, shines brightly.

La Cucina: be patient and order wisely

Honolulu is pretty easy on Italian restaurants. Much too easy: when restaurants unload a plate of pasta so heavy the waitress can barely carry two at a time, the noodles swimming in sauce the texture of cream of tomato soup, and charge less than $15 for it, Honolulu’s happy. In fact, Honolulu will line up down the street.

I’m not quite so easily amused. I crave the flavors of Italy as I have experienced them in Venice and Bologna–bright, unmuddled, complex flavors that come from more than just throwing in a few basil leaves or a handful of garlic. I crave the Italian dining experience: a slow procession of small, select courses from antipasti through pasta, fish, meat, salad and dolci (sweet). Add to that the expectation that you’re there to relish each experience, enjoy your company at the table, relax.

Stewed marinara, herbs bitter from overcooking, garlic that’s burnt, a plate so heavily laden, it makes me tired to look at–these don’t make me happy. And waiting two hours for a table? You better be Jiro dreaming of sushi to get me to wait that long.

So, despite Yelp raves and general buzz, I entered six-month-old La Cucina Ristorante Italiana without high expectations.

We’ll draw a veil over my first experience: Lunch. I don’t advise visiting during the noon hour; the offerings are pared back (the best dish we tasted at dinner isn’t available), the wait will eat your lunch hour, and it’s a bit pricey. My spinach ravioli ($16) was so salty, I pushed it away. After the waitress inquired about it, she took it off the bill. Nice touch, but I would rather have enjoyed lunch.

Dinner, now. Well, that was something else. I rounded up Husband and two food-savvy friends on a Tuesday night (they take reservations only for parties of four or more, and don’t get me started on restaurants that don’t take reservations for everyone all the time from Day One, or you’ll be reading this all day).

Our table was ready. The reservationist (waitress-, bartender-, busser- and cashier-in-one) had politely asked on the phone, “Have you been here before? Do you have to be somewhere after dinner?” She explained that the chef-owner is on his own in the kitchen and that things are slow-paced at Cucina. “Perfect!” I said.

Actually, our courses arrived without undue delay. We ate like Italians, slowly, with pleasure and comment, sharing two very good appetizers, a third over-the-top first course that arrived just as the first two disappeared, and a good-but-perhaps-not-perfect entrée each. The men shared a bottle of Italian red ($40; possibly better to pay corkage and BYOB here).

A pair of Italian favorites–bruschetta (tomatoes in herbed vinaigrette atop grilled bread; 4 pieces, $7) and crostini al porcini (mushrooms and mozzarella atop grilled bread; 4 pices, $8)–made us very, very happy. The bread was properly crisp, not overly garlicked, the toppings chopped fine and almost creamy textured. Smiles all around.

But then came the Melanzane Parmigiana (eggplant sautéed with garlic and mozzarella in tomato sauce with Parmesan; soup plate full, $14). This is how good this dish was: Husband seriously contemplated ordering a plate to go for lunch next day.

What was it like. Well, it was like Italy, maybe Little Italy New York, but like every wonderful tomatoey, garlicky, silky-textured, cheesy Italian thing you’ve ever eaten. It was soul-satisfying.

It was, I’m afraid, a bit downhill from there, though not too steeply.

Husband loved his Risotto Norcina (a fennel-accented risotto of Italian sausage with truffle oil and Pecorino Romano (large serving, $18); he wanted his leftovers for breakfast next morning with an egg on top. Another guest chose the Risotto Funghi (mushroom risotto, $17) and was quite pleased.

But I ordered gnocchi with butter and sage (IMMENSE serving, $14); the mistake was not in the difficult-to-do-right gnocchi, which was perfectly pillowy. But the the sauce, which ought to have been browned butter and fresh sage leaves, was a thin, nutmeg cream. And there was too damned much of it. I should have ordered chicken or fish; they were out of osso buco.

And though the pasta was obviously housemade, another guest’s Fettuccine Scampi Limone ($19) just missed the mark: shrimp (still in the shells; bad idea, messy) a wee bit overcooked, pasta a wee bit undercooked. But it had a lovely citrusy flavor from whole, seeded and chopped skin-on lemons tossed with the pasta.

Our conclusion: La Cucina understands Italian flavors but caters to American tastes with its portion sizes and menu organization.

For example, in Italy, pasta, gnocchi and polenta are second courses or sides. But in America, diners want these rich, relatively inexpensive dishes in large portions. Too bad.

Much better for your health, relationships, and the restaurant’s bottom line, to eat small, well-spaced servings with a full complement of meats and vegetables, starches and fish. La Cucina would do well to consider half-portions.

725 Kapi’olani Boulevard (Kapi’olani at Cooke), the Imperial Bldg., Ste. 112. Lunch, 11am-2pm Mon.-Fri.; dinner, 5:30-9:30pm Mon.-Thurs., to 10pm Fri.-Sat.; closed Sunday. Full bar, corkage fee $10 bottle, reservations for parties of four and more, credit cards accepted, parking difficult. 593-2626 (no website).