Always in Season

Erin Jackson |
Food And Dining

While the majority of the menu is in flux at Cucina Urbana, one item has earned a permanent placement: Stuffed Fried Squash Blossoms.

“The squash blossoms were immediately well-received,” Owner Tracy Borkum says. “We saw diners instantly gravitate towards ordering them. I suppose you could say it was love at first bite.”

It’s easy to see why. From both a flavor and presentation standpoint, the stuffed fried squash blossoms are stunning. First, a blend of ricotta cheese, lemon preserves, chives, and lemon juice is packed inside the petals. Next, the blossoms (with tender, young zucchini attached) are dipped in a light, eggless tempura batter and fried until golden brown. Finally, they’re placed on a plate with a vibrant stripe of cured lemon aïoli and a zigzag drizzle of zesty opal basil pesto. It’s a thoughtful, well-executed appetizer that has remained relatively unchanged since the opening of Cucina Urbana.

“A lot of our dishes will go through an evolution where we’ll make tweaks over a certain period of time, but that one hasn’t changed at all,” Executive Chef Joe Magnanelli says. “From day one, it was one of our best-selling dishes and it’s never slowed down. It’s actually gotten more and more popular.”

Borkum attributes the popularity of the dish to its many layers of flavor. “When you have a blend of squash, citrus, herb, and aïoli, lightly fried, you really can't go wrong.”

Squash blossoms are typically a seasonal product that peaks in summer. That means most restaurants can only offer them for a short period of time, without importing them from international sources. Cucina Urbana, on the other hand, is able to serve them year-round because of their longstanding relationship with Specialty Produce, a wholesale distributor that sources squash blossoms from Fresh Origins, a small family farm in San Marcos.

At Fresh Origins, squash blossoms are grown in greenhouses. That equates to blossoms as lush in the winter and fall as they are in the summer. Much to Magnanelli's delight, the beloved dish can stay on the menu all year long.

Which is great news for Cucina Urbana, where there's a huge demand for the cheesy, citrusy, squash blossoms. So far this year, the restaurant has gone through over 1,000 cases (at 25 squash blossoms a case). That number will more than double when Cucina Enoteca—a new sister concept—opens in Del Mar this fall.

Cucina Urbana’s relationship with Specialty Produce has also played a role in Magnanelli’s creative process, allowing him to dream up new dishes without worrying about whether or not certain ingredients can be found.

“Specialty Produce can source and find anything. Because of that, we're able to evolve freely,” he says.

That’s a dream scenario for any chef, especially Magnanelli, who prefers to see what each season brings, take time to play with produce as it becomes available, and evolve the menu bit by bit. Because Specialty Produce is just minutes away, and multiple deliveries arrive throughout the day, that type of experimentation is a unique advantage for Cucina Urbana.

“They’ve been great to me ever since I’ve been a chef in San Diego,” says Magnanelli. “They take care of us. The great thing about having close relationships is that you trust the vendor so you know you’re getting the best stuff.”

Cucina Urbana’s dynamic, ever-evolving menu not only allows the restaurant to wow diners with the freshest, most vibrant produce possible, it also helps to energize Cucina Urbana’s team of chefs, encouraging them to think creatively and stay enthusiastic about what’s coming up next.

“As soon as we’re in the middle of summer, we’re always excited for fall. And then in fall, we’re excited for winter. We’re always thinking ahead,” Magnanelli gushes.

Looking ahead to the fall menu, Magnanelli says he’s stoked to work with the fruits and vegetables of the fall harvest, including spaghetti squash, Cinderella pumpkins, currants, chestnuts, dried fruits, apples, and black truffles.

We can’t wait to taste it all.

Chef's Selections

Stumped about what to order at Cucina Urbana? Follow Joe Magnanelli’s suggestions for the perfect fall feast.

chestnut agnolotti | black trumpet mushroom + pancetta + date + brown butter + ricotta salada 

berkshire pork osso bucco | black truffle and leek smashed potato + arugula + chinotto sugo

rosemary + pine nut tart | fig jam + yogurt gelato