‘Where the Doorway to the Imagination Awaits You’
At Cucina Rustica, in the Village of Oak Creek, you can leave the busyness of life behind. This rustic Italian grill, one of the Dahl Group’s four destination restaurants in Sedona (along with Dahl & Di Luca, Mariposa, and Pisa Lisa), captures the spirit and essence of Old World grace—both in its recreated villa-style atmosphere, with warmly hued rooms that spin stories of yesteryear, and in its lush and romantic outdoor spaces where daily concerns naturally melt away. The patios encourage a feeling of community, especially during the restaurant’s Rustica Hour, where there is a lively atmosphere of convivial good cheer.
Years ago when she began to feel a calling to open a second restaurant, Lisa Dahl, proprietor and executive chef of the Dahl Group, envisioned a Mediterranean-inspired establishment, anchored in Spanish and Italian influences. But, unfortunately, in 2002, when Cucina Rustica was in its planning stages, expectations were that Dahl would create a sister restaurant to Dahl and Di Luca Ristorante in West Sedona—at least as far as the menu was concerned. “In my heart of hearts I saw the restaurant as something that was reminiscent of piazzas in old Spain. But I succumbed [to business pressures] and played it safe, keeping the focus strictly Italian; still, the true essence of what I always wanted to do kept haunting me.”
When Dahl did give free reign to creating luxurious patios that highlight a piazza-like mood at Cucina Rustica, they received awards, such as being included on the list of “100 Best Al Fresco Restaurants in the United States for 2017.” (The OpenTable award is based on more than 10 million reviews by verified diners for more than 25,000 restaurants.)
Adding Spanish Influences to
Fourteen years after the restaurant opened, the Spanish influence on Cucina Rustica’s dining options is finally more pronounced. The reinspired dinner menu has a stronger Mediterranean flavor, and the introduction of an “in season” lunch menu, served Thursday through Sunday, enlivens the restaurant’s patios. The patios, overflowing with nature’s florid beauty, create a vibrant backdrop for a memorable dining experience, and the new tapas dishes give a distinctively Spanish zest to the restaurant’s Rustica Hour.
The enhancements have not taken over the menu, however: Dahl has kept all the dishes people love—classic lasagna, eggplant parmesan, the veal dishes, grilled artichokes, tiramisu, seasonal cheesecakes, and other customer favorites—even the technically non-Mediterranean key lime pie. (“If you can’t improve something, you can’t improve it,” she laughs.) Changes focus on new dinner entrees, a luncheon menu, and tapas additions.
At dinner, guests can enjoy more roasted and grilled dishes, executed with the trademark skill of Chef de Cuisine Luis Rodriquez, the respected leader of the Cucina Rustica kitchen for more than a decade. The new Pollo Rosti (roasted chicken) is baked with a strong influence of lemon, curry, and rosemary, and served over oven-roasted ratatouille.
“Equal to my love of cooking is my passion for creating beautiful spaces,” says Dahl. “From the moment our guests enter the door, they must be taken out of reality a little so as to begin to take their own magical journey to another place in time.”
- Lisa Dahl, Proprietor and Executive Chef
Other entrée additions include:
- All-natural beef short ribs, braised in wine and a vegetable ragout, and served over pappardelle pasta (broad flat noodle ribbons)
- Pork tenderloin—fennel rubbed and grilled, then finished with a red-caper confit and served with an earthy farro pilaf
- Polpo (grilled baby Spanish octopuses), served with charred artichokes and braised butter beans and
- Branzino (grilled sea bass), prepared with olives and citrus, and served with a pine-nut tapenade.
Nightly guitar music enhances the soulfulness of the experience.
Lunch selections run the gamut from Dahl’s award-winning gringo burger to a roasted vegetable plate, a chilled Seafood Louie salad, the popular Killer Kale Caesar (with or without grilled serrano salmon) and inventive caprese salads. “It’s a small menu with a taste of something for everyone,” notes Dahl.
On the tapas menu, a Mediterranean sampler features such Dahl favorites as grilled, thin-sliced eggplant; organic peppers preserved in a delicate vinaigrette; oven-roasted, herbed organic tomatoes; luscious lemon humus; dolmas (rice-stuffed grape leaves); feta cheese, and marinated mushrooms. Specialty drinks and wine-pairing opportunities augment the offerings.
“I believe that teaming up the restaurant’s charcuterie plate with tapas is a sublime option for family-style dining during our Rustica Hour,” says Dahl, “especially when paired with Cucina Rustica’s wine list, which has won the Wine Spectator Restaurant Award for 12 consecutive years . I have always been passionate about pairing wonderful food with amazing wine; it truly makes a meal complete.”
Creating a timeless villa
“Equal to my love of cooking is my passion for creating beautiful spaces,” says Dahl. “From the moment our guests come through the entrance gate, they must be taken out of reality a little so as to begin to take their own magical journey to another place in time. Every single step of Cucina Rustica has been designed to give guests a feeling that they have entered a fortress of an Old-World garden. The late visionary painter and special effects artist Eddie Kingery and I embellished every room to create a sense of wonder. This encourages guests to ponder, ‘Where am I? Is this a believable centuries-old villa or not?’”
“Bringing Cucina Rustica to life was a great adventure for me,” recalls Dahl. “The raw open space was a blank canvas.” By segmenting the 5,500-square-foot space into distinct rooms, Dahl built a credible illusion of a Mediterranean villa. Within a harmonious overall color palate, each room has its own unique flavor and style—indeed “a soul or anima” that Dahl believes was brought to life by inserting actual historic pieces (“the bones” of all the countries where these gates, doors, and windows have come from”); vintage, decorative design elements; and new materials that have been distressed (torched, charred, beaten, hammered, streaked, and/or blended) to look ancient.
- Several hundred year-old teak beams define The Colonnade Bar, in the hallway entrance to the dining rooms. This row of beams (eight in all) creates an atmosphere “you might feel outdoors in a piazza.”
- The golden-hued Provence Room, to the right of the entrance, exudes a “gentle elegance and opulence.” Style elements that capture the Old-World French chateaux-like look are an oversized Canterra fireplace, an authentic woven tapestry, and a gold-leafed dome.
- The Taverna Room, on the garden side of the Colonnade Bar, fuses textures and histories. On the one hand, there are elements of a darkened tavern cellar with the solidity of a massive fireplace; iron chandelier; leather-door armoire; and an authentic, weathered-green postino (postman) Spanish fortress door, armored with medieval-looking metal grommets. On the other hand, there are etheric, large, antique French doors from a church in India and the soft
comforting feeling that comes from looking out the window over the resplendently lush patio.
- The Giardino de Justino (Garden of Justin), with its starry-sky dome above a lion-headed fountain that stands in the center of surrounding tables, simulates an inner courtyard. It suggests the merry feeling that comes from everyone being able to look at each other, and it can make someone wonder, ‘Am I indoors or outdoors?” Ocotillo handmade shades add another otherworldly touch when light passes through in streaks. This garden room is dedicated to Dahl’s only son, Justin, who was killed during a Good Samaritan act. “It reminds me that there is heaven on earth. . . . The starry sky continues to let me know that Justin is still with me.”
- The Magellan Room, is majestic and “ultra-romantic,” with its Spanish-inspired color scheme of sienna and cinnamon and the tapestry tonalities in the upholstered chairs. The intimacy of this small room gives it a sensuous, almost clandestine, feeling, especially when the blinds are open to welcome the filtered light passing through the shimmering sycamores on the back terrace.
The imaginative theme of Cucina Rustica was, in part, inspired by Dahl’s mother whose boutique clothing stores “were like little stories.” “If you are shopping for clothes and looking in store windows from the outside, that’s what draws you in, and it’s the same in the restaurant business,” says Dahl. “I like people to feel transported. I like people to forget time and space. In Dahl and Di Luca, I feel like I am in Florence. In this restaurant, I am in Barcelona. But perhaps other guests dining at Cucina Rustica might find themselves in their own state of elsewhere.”
Story written by Sylvia Somerville | Photos taken by Scott Yates
For more information on Cucina Rustica, visit: www.cucinarustica.com