In the heart of downtown Louisville, tucked just far enough away from Main Street to create a mood entirely its own, Zucca’s stucco storefront beckons patrons in, where good wine and warm, herbed focaccia bread are the answer to life’s many worries.
My mother, who lived in Verona, Italy, for the better part of a year during her 20s, used to assure me that most of life’s day-to-day problems could be soothed by a good Italian meal shared with close friends — and wine. Not too much, but not too little.
And that always sounded like good advice to me.
Too windy to sit on the restaurant’s patio on an otherwise warm October evening, Zucca’s interior immediately erased any dismay at having to give up plans of an al fresco meal. A small bar gives patrons a place to huddle close together to chat about wine or love (or politics), while the dining room offers a more open, but equally cozy, environment.
Zucca is the place to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, a place to meet friends and laugh over pasta. It’s small without being cramped, and its soft lighting, stucco walls, beamed ceilings and heavy wooden tables lend the eatery a comforting rustic vibe. The word zucca means pumpkin (or gourd) in Italian, which makes the variety of colorful and bumpy gourds on display at Zucca make sense, and adds to that bucolic atmosphere.
Zucca is one of six restaurants under the Three Leaf Concepts umbrella, which means that many of the ingredients in Zucca’s dishes are harvested at Three Leaf Farms just down the road in Lafayette.
It’s easy to feel smitten with the vegetables at Zucca as they seem to outshine even the most delicious cut of beef or slice of fish. The roasted purple potatoes that came with my dining partner’s bistecca (hanger steak) were so royal in color I mistook them for beets at first.
But nothing quite topped the mix of vegetables that comes with the grilled swordfish: soft heirloom tomatoes, crunchy green beans, roasted fingerling potatoes and fried capers, all served atop tarragon aioli.
Swordfish is perhaps the perfect grilled food, with its texture residing somewhere between pork and tuna; it’s juicy and meaty and gives off that ideal ocean smell (fresh, not fishy). When it’s done just right, it has a slightly crunchy exterior around its edges that acts as the perfect foil to the chewy meat inside.
But what made this perfectly grilled piece of fish shine were the vegetables and tarragon aioli. These are vegetables grown locally, and it’s obvious. The tomatoes were juicy without being grainy (an unfortunate side effect that often shows up in hot house tomatoes), and the green beans were bright green and crisp. Aioli is a fundamentally Mediterranean sauce, and it is not, despite what you may have heard on the street, just a flavored mayonnaise. It should be rich without being heavy, and when combined with tarragon, it makes a perfect pair with fish.
Despite a belly full of food, I found that I left Zucca lighter than I came. Our cheeks rosy from glasses of wine, we felt soothed by an evening of good food and good conversation.
Zucca Italian Ristorante. 808 Main St., Louisville, 303-666-6499.