By Frank Sabatini Jr.
What do you call a place that isn’t really a full-fledged Italian restaurant, but puts house-made pastas at the core of its menu? The answer: Cucina Sorella, which marks the third incarnation of a prime Kensington address that started more than 20 years ago as Kensington Grill and later operated as Fish Public for a brief time.
Sorella is the sisterly offshoot of Cucina Urbana in Bankers Hill and a series of similar restaurants in Del Mar, Newport Beach and Irvine headed by restaurateur Tracy Borkum of Urban Kitchen Group.
Borkum has done well in captivating consumers with her California-inspired, quasi-Italian concepts, which commonly spotlight polenta boards with various ragus, jazzy pasta dishes, and well-conceived meat and fish entrees, all laced with clever sauces and seasonal produce.
Sorella sticks to the format, but ups the ante with additional scratch-made pasta dishes such as spaghetti tossed with duck and Brussels sprouts, and curly scoops of torchio noodles complemented by seafood sausage, white corn, burrata and cashew pesto.
There are also wide, flat ribbons of pappardelle paired to an ambitious Bolognese of sausage, chicken livers, lamb, veal and pork — something I’d favor on colder nights or after abstaining from meat for a week.
The double storefront has been refreshed with eye-catching wallpaper Borkum designed, plus clusters of hanging plants, wooden tabletops and a small deli case flaunting fresh pastas for sale. A central bar separating the two dining areas remains intact, as does a retail section in the front stocked with candles, cookbooks and other homey goods.
Helming the kitchen is chef de cuisine Daniel Wolinsky, who learned the art of pasta making after working in various restaurants in New York City.
“I know all the rules of Italian food and like to throw them on the wall and then put them back together,” he said, while pointing out some of the dishes he recently added to the menu — cappellacci dumplings harboring pumpkin and oxtail ragu, and linguine tossed with prized chanterelle mushrooms and almond pesto.
We ordered the latter and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. The egg-based noodles were loose and luxurious, the mushrooms were meaty and tender, and the pesto was herby and substantially nutty.
In our lead-up to the pasta, we spooned into a small glass jar of chicken liver pate garnished with balsamic onions. Not since reveling multiple times in the pate at the former Farmhouse Café in University Heights have I found a worthy equivalent until now. This was equally unctuous, and perhaps smoother, with proper accents of white wine, brandy and “lots of butter,” as Wolinsky revealed.
Tuscan white bean soup needed herbs, and the beans were about 30 minutes shy of turning fully tender. Though the soup was clean and hearty, the biggest burst of flavor originated from finely grated Romano cheese centered on top.
A trio of fried squash blossoms appeased with their light tempura batter and creamy ricotta fillings. Setting them apart from similar preparations elsewhere was a pool of fennel-lime vinaigrette at the bottom of the shallow bowl. It teased out the flavor of the subtle-tasting blooms, which doesn’t always spring forth from merely cheese and batter.
Wolinsky does wonders with pork shank, too. The monstrous bone-in cut was slow-roasted to a splendid, soft texture and finished judiciously with gremolata, an admixture of citrus, parsley, garlic and olive oil that’s typically served with veal ossobuco.
Here, his use of orange zest in the recipe (instead of that from lemons) gave the meat a deeper, fruitier essence that worked exceptionally well with the pork, which was encircled by a moat of earthy black lentils and braised dandelion greens. We shared the plate and still took home leftovers.
House-made sangria with a burgundy base carried my companion through the dinner while this designated driver resisted the largely Italian wine list and crafty cocktail choices in lieu of “aquazul,” a house-made soda that our waitress wisely recommended.
Flavored with muddled strawberries, lime, ginger and mint, the soda paired with every spec of food I ate and served also as an effective palate cleanser between our perfectly staggered courses.
We concluded with a chic chocolate-peanut butter bar surrounded by dots of torched marshmallow and chocolate sauce. If the idea of a sweet-and-salty s’more fires your jets, don’t leave without trying it.
Note: Chef Wolinsky will conduct a series of pasta-making classes at Sorella, starting with “long noodles” on Oct. 30, and continuing with “semolina dough” on Nov. 20 and “stuffed pasta” on Dec. 18. Classes start at noon and cost $68 per person (not including tax and gratuity).
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.