i Cugini – Sacrilege on a Caesar Salad

i Cugini italian seafood, downtown santa monica, los angeles, ca - caesar salad
I am always amused when people are “embarrassed to admit…” to something, particularly when it comes to food and restaurants.

“I’m embarrassed to admit…I like McDonald’s.”

“I have to confess…I don’t really like foie gras.”

“I secretly think…KFC is better than homemade fried chicken.”

Why? Why do we say that we’re embarrassed to admit to liking something? Is there something wrong with liking what you like? If you think it’s good and you like it, that’s fine. If you think it’s bad and you don’t like it, that’s also fine. The trouble comes, of course, when you think it’s bad and yet you still like it. That makes you a hypocrite.

If you think it’s bad and yet you still like it, doesn’t that actually mean you do think it’s good, but everyone else thinks it’s bad so you should think it’s bad, and therefore, you shouldn’t like it? That means you’re easily influenced by others’ opinions. You’re brainwashed. Confused.

You shouldn’t feel like you have to admit to liking something that everyone else doesn’t. It’s your opinion. Like it because you like it, dammit. Unless it’s illegal, immoral, or undeniably ugly, you’re allowed to like it, whatever “it” is.

Except the Cheesecake Factory. And Uggs. Both, I’m sorry proud to say, are undeniably ugly.

Man, I should follow my own advice.

I am embarrassed to admit that I have gone to i Cugini. Even worse, I have gone to i Cugini multiple times. Worst of all, I have gone to i Cugini multiple times because…I kind of, um, like it.

*she crumbles into a shameful, red-faced heap onto the floor with a bucket of the Colonel’s Original Recipe*

i Cugini italian seafood, downtown santa monica, los angeles, ca - menu
if italian seafood is wrong, i want to be…wrong
i Cugini italian seafood, downtown santa monica, los angeles, ca - bread
i don’t think the bread is good. i don’t like it. (not a hypocrite!)

Really, I shouldn’t like i Cugini. It’s near the hateful Promenade. It’s overrun with the T-word (tourists). Most of the food, or rather, the food that requires actual cooking, is mediocrity at the price of oceanfront.

Now comes the self-acquitting “but” statement that always follows opinions coupled with contradicting confession.

I shouldn’t like i Cugini, but I love the utterly sacrilegous way their kitchen turns out Caesar Salad.

Good grief. There’s another one. And another one. And, oh-em-gee, yet another confession that makes me a hungry hungry hypocrite.

Even with the abundance in southern California of fresh produce and accessibility to unique ingredients that could be tossed into the most beautifully tri-colore-ful arugula, radicchio, endive, goat cheese, pistachios and pomegrantes in a yuzu persimmon balsamagrette.

Even though pretentious fools believe Caesar naturally belongs on a Roman Emperor’s menu.

Even with my stubborn to tradition and they way something is “supposed” to be and taste.

Even still…I love Caesar Salad. I always order it in Italian restaurants. I fall all over myself when whole anchovy fillets sheets of parmesan blaspheme uncut hearts of Romaine that have been tossed with a dressing made with cooked eggs and an unholy amount of garlic. No croutons.

Señor Caesar Cardini would choke on his Worcestershire sauce.

i Cugini italian seafood, downtown santa monica, los angeles, ca - caesar salad
mexi-talian food
i Cugini italian seafood, downtown santa monica, los angeles, ca - ruffino pinot grigio
not bad, since kitchen doesn’t cook it

Caesar Salad, you see, is quite possibly the most unimaginative thing you can serve as a starter in a restaurant other than a Denny’s dinner salad of Iceberg, cucumber coins and halved (ass) cherry tomatoes with Ranch dressing. It is also the most Mexican malapropos salad you can serve in an otherwise Italian context. Yet, the Caesar Salad has to appear on the menu at i Cugini because there are bloggers like me who love it. I order it every time I shamefully hide away in a shady corner on their pseudo-outdoor seating. The Ocean Ave side patio is completely protected from the elements with clear plastic that lets you snatch distorted glimpses of the ocean if you happen to catch a break in the passing urban mobile rainbow of Metro Red, Yellow, Big Blue, and Culver City Green. That’s only at lunch. If it’s dinner time, it’s a disco of headlights out there.

There isn’t anything else on I Cugini’s menu that sends me into delicious orbit other than that Caesar, and the occasional plate of white anchovies when they’re available. As I snarked previously, foods that rely only on the freshness of the produce and a partially skilled culinary academy extern to plate, are not disappointing – I could make
a meal of the salads, though the Golden Beet Carpaccio was too thick and hard. Anything that is cooked is where I Cugini makes me hate myself for admitting out loud that I asked my co-workers to take me there for my birthday luncheon. Then again, we work on The Promenade and Chinese Gourmet Express can’t seat a party of 12.

i Cugini italian seafood, downtown santa monica, los angeles, ca - minestrone soup
crisp for crouton
i Cugini italian seafood, downtown santa monica, los angeles, ca - gnocchi
not bad if it were on sale

Minestrone soup is unremarkable, except that it’s rather thin and requires a heavy hand with table salt. What I do like, however, is the accompanying trailer trashy parmesan crisp. My susicion is that the cheesy little accessory should be broken like saltines into the soup, thereby “seasoning” the otherwise bland broth, but I couldn’t bear to surrender the crispness and concentrated saltiness to such diffusion. Next time, I should also ask to replace the croutons on my Caesar with a few of them.

i Cugini italian seafood, downtown santa monica, los angeles, ca - prosciutto and mozzarella panini
expensive, even for “panini”
i cugini, downtown santa monica, los angeles, ca - sauteed swiss chard
sort of like cheesecake

The five or six pastas on the menu are ordinary. Gnocchi were gummy and drowning in sauce. Mozzarella and Prosciutto panini (available during lunch) was passable. Sauteed Swiss Chard with lemon and whole roasted garlic cloves, some of which were bitterly burnt, reminded me a little of the sauteed spinach side at Cheesecake Factory (crap, did I just admit that I’ve eaten at Cheesecake Factory?!). Nothing I’ve tried at I Cugini is inedible. It’s only painful when we think of value. I can have better, for less expensive, elsewhere.

But I don’t mind admitting that $9.95 for their Caesar is worth it.

i Cugini
1501 Ocean Ave
Santa Monica, CA 90401
(310) 451-4595

www.icugini.com

** a year ago today, i got wild and adventurous on my birthday with…take-out from india’s oven **
** two years ago today, we feasted on kBBQ all (longest) day long **

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  • Hillary

    I’m surprised to see you go on that whoolllle rant and be a victim of your own objection. We’re all hypocrites, aren’t we?

    And going along with your rant, I think that part of the reason people are ashamed are not because of others dislike, but because McDonalds, KFC, etc. are unhealthy! I happened to like McDonalds and I’m ashamed because it’s so bad for me.

  • Yvette

    This is funny. I was just think about that phrase, but in regards to parenting. Some mothers were having an online discussion where the were embarrassed to admit that they let their children watch some TV so they can get a break.

    I was just thinking, why is that embarrassing? everyone needs a break.

    Same thing applies here. Everyone can like something that is bad for you, or mass produced. As long as you keep your options open and don’t have the food everyday – There is nothing wrong with it.

  • TeddyBallgame

    A. Your decision to use ‘amused’ in your opening is a wonderful choice of words.
    B. Consider the Bizarro situation. haraS [Bizarro Sarah] is embarrassed to admit that she eats nothing other than Kix in the morning, Subway Tuna at noon and Houston’s Ribs at night. At first blush, that is embarrassing. haraS’ rigidity might be considered pathological. Keep that in mind for…
    C. Back to Sarah who is embarrassed to admit she haunts I Cugini, which, as we know Sarah somewhat, means that she’s mixed in an oceanfront, slightly pedestrian restaurant to her otherwise wordly selection of dining choices. Who, if we are to judge [another subject] should be more embarrassed? haraS who won’t even try Grape Nuts or Sarah who dares eat, repeatedly, at a well known money laundering front?
    4. I was embarrassed after spell checking the above to find I spelled ‘embarrassed’ three different ways.
    Feel better.

  • Sheri

    I love this post even if I’ve never even heard of I Cugini. And yes, down with Cheesecake Factory and their ginormous 12-page menus of yuck…

  • Cindy. Lo.

    I love McDonald’s (and I’m not ashamed to say that), especially their filet-o-fish!
    I do feel bad when I say I dislike something (usually restaurants) but most of the people happen to love it. eg. TGI Fridays and Olive Garden…but well, it’s my own palate!

  • sarah

    hillary: excellent point. but um….wait? is mcdoanld’s unhealthy?!?!

    ;)

    yvette: amen! and really, letting your kids watch oprah is so much better than forcing them to suffer through overweight purple dinosaurs and small red monsters with ADD. trust me. my niece has developed some very weird habits from watching barney and elmo.

    akabobbychampagne: wouldn’t it be that Haras wouldn’t be ashamed at all of loving Kix (which is untasty, btw – whatever happened to sugar?) and Subway?

    wait, does Houston’s have ribs?!

    sheri: but i hate to admit this…sometimes i crave their avocado eggrolls.

    *ducks for cover*

    i know. someone should spank me for that.

    cindy lo: you know what always weirded me out about filet o fish? it’s perfect square.

  • justJENN

    Cheesecake Factory for party buffets isn’t bad. Sorry.

    Also I have never been to i Cugini, why is it embarrassing?

  • Anonymous

    il fornaio a block down has the best gnochi and butternut squash ravioli far better than i cugini, but no Ceaser…also great bar

  • Kim

    I’m proud to say I too love the filet-o-fish (and the chicken nuggets) from McDonald’s. Their fries are also the best of all junk food chains.
    Though I’m a real ‘gourmande’ and splurge regularly on the best foods and drinks available, fast food will always keep its place on my menu.

  • J.

    I’m pretty shameless, so I don’t really have that many actual “guilty pleasures” (does anyone else find it weird how much love the filet-o-fish is getting? I thought I was one of the few!). Outside of the guilty pleasures that impinge on a healthy lifestyle… yeah… one should lustily enjoy whatever it is they’re into, no shame, no regrets! J

    But for statements along the lines of “to be honest, I don’t really like foie gras”… these acquired taste foods (another classic example is uni) I think have to do with extending your palate and refining it (if that’s the kind of thing you care about). So I actually try to encourage people to eat these things, not questioning their taste level, more just as an experiential thing for the person.

    Same idea applies to say, really liking Olive Garden: I think this is much more about comfort level and what you‘ve eaten before as a comparison point, more than anything else. We need to get Olive Garden lovers to Little Italy in Manhattan, stat, where they will find similarly priced, much tastier Italian dishes (e.g. fresher ingredients, better prep, overall better execution).

    And finally… the Caesar… oh how I love you, also. I think Caesar Salads have gone from “a very underappreciated dish, if executed properly” to now being generally appreciated. I had an very good one at Spago pretty recently (warning: it’s $16 but it was on the corporate tab wooo). I will have to try the one at I Cugini.

  • Davin

    Actually at i Cugini, their black pepper mussels are fantastic (provided you like black pepper that is, because that’s the main thing you will taste). They would probably go well with the Caesar salad also…

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