CUCINA enoteca: An Irvine Favorite for Rustic Italian Food with a California Twist

If you’re in the mood for California inspired Italian food, CUCINA enoteca is a must-try restaurant in Irvine. CUCINA enoteca is part of the Urban Kitchen Group collection of restaurants located throughout Southern California.  Under the leadership of owner and principal, Tracy Borkum, Urban Kitchen Group boasts five locations in the Orange County and San Diego metros.

CUCINA enoteca in Irvine
CUCINA enoteca in Irvine

Tracy Borkum’s Vision for the Urban Kitchen Group Collection of Restaurants

After multiple successful restaurant ventures in San Diego, Tracy’s first entry into the Orange County restaurant scene was with CUCINA enoteca at the Irvine Spectrum.  For this location, Tracy wanted a restaurant name that would encompass an integral part of their concept: wine. The name CUCINA enoteca loosely translates to kitchen + wine repository. As you enter the restaurant, you’re greeted with CUCINA’s impressive retail wine shop that features over 200 specialty labels from European to Americas with an emphasis on Italian and Californian varietals.

Retail wine section at the CUCINA enoteca entrance
Retail wine section at the CUCINA enoteca entrance

[I knew] I would be solely responsible for not only my achievements but also my failures. – Owner, Tracy Borkum

Urban Kitchen Group’s mission statement is: “to successfully craft the perfect dining ‘trifecta’: exceptional food and superior service in an imaginatively designed environment.” As you dine at CUCINA enoteca, you can’t help but notice that in every corner, with each dish and in all aspects of the restaurant there is so much personality. From the bohemian-chic fixtures to the presentation of the dishes (you can get roasted garlic burrata in a mini mason jar), it’s all very CUCINA enoteca. 

Founder and prinicpal, Tracy Borkum (Photo courtesy of UKG)
Founder and prinicpal, Tracy Borkum (Photo courtesy of UKG)

In taking the leap to go into the restaurant business, Tracy drew inspiration from her parents who were also both entrepreneurs. “[I knew] I would be solely responsible for not only my achievements but also my failures.”1)http://www.sandiegometro.com/2011/03/women-owned-business-owners-are-driven-by-an-entrepreneurial-spirit/ Since its opening in December of 2011, CUCINA enoteca has become an Orange County favorite for “Cal-Ital” cuisine. So much so that in 2014, Urban Kitchen Group opened a second Orange County location at Fashion Island in Newport Beach.

Honey roasted eggplant and herb goat cheese pizza
Honey roasted eggplant and herb goat cheese pizza

The Urban Kitchen Group’s mission statement “to successfully craft the perfect dining ‘trifecta’: exceptional food and superior service in an imaginatively designed environment.”

How did you come up with the idea of combining a restaurant with a wine shop?

Tracy: The restaurant-to-retail component was crafted throughout initial discussions of what the ‘look and feel’ of the space would offer. From furniture to lighting to candles and soap, everything is available for purchase. An obvious extension of the restaurant-to-retail concept was further carried out through the retail wine shop. Every bottle on the menu is also available for purchase to take home and enjoy.

CUCINA enoteca main dining area
CUCINA enoteca main dining area (Photo courtesy of UKG)

Why is the first word all capitalized? 

Tracy: When developing CUCINA, it was always our goal to expand the concept to multiple markets. The capitalization of the word ‘CUCINA’ fits in our brand of growing CUCINA concepts (CUCINA enoteca Irvine, CUCINA enoteca Del Mar, CUCINA enoteca Newport Beach), each with its own special identity. CUCINA is the trademark stamp that ties it all together. The most recent concept, cucina SORELLA, follows a different styling due to the “little sister” translation. cucina SORELLA is a spin-off on the other CUCINA concepts, offering a smaller more intimate setting which is fitting for its name.

If it’s no calories, it’s no fun! – Chef de Cuisine, Tony Trujillo.

 The CUCINA family of restaurants has several locations, what makes the Irvine Spectrum location special?

Tracy: CUCINA enoteca Irvine holds a special place in the CUCINA family as it was the first expansion of the CUCINA brand in the Orange County market as well as the first location that we were able to build from the ground up. It was also our first venture into a retail setting, a model that we have carried through our other locations and fits perfectly with our restaurant-to-retail concept.

CUCINA enoteca patio dining area
CUCINA enoteca patio dining area (Photo courtesy of UKG)

CUCINA has a way with Italian food, whether it’s their Italian comfort-food lasagna or “blistering leopard spots intended” rustic pizza. CUCINA manages to deliver authentic Italian while adding a fresh Californian twist.

Lasagna al Forno
Lasagna al Forno (Photo courtesy of UKG)

What is the inspiration for the California inspired Italian cuisine that one can enjoy at CUCINA enoteca?

Tracy: Combining the freshness of local California produce with the tradition of delicious Italian cooking, continues to be the inspiration behind CUCINA enoteca and all CUCINA concepts. Fresh, local fare leads our inspiration and allows us to create inventive twists on classic staples – there’s always something new to discover. 

Chef de Cuisine Tony Trujillo

Tony Trujillo is CUCINA enoteca’s in Irvine’s Chef de Cuisine.  If you’re in the mood for some seafood, feast your eyes on this beautiful Faroe Island salmon that Chef Tony Trujillo was preparing during our visit! “If it’s no calories, it’s no fun!” joked Chef Trujillo.

Chef de Cuisine of CUCINA enoteca, Tony Trujillo
Chef de Cuisine of CUCINA enoteca, Tony Trujillo

Strolling through the Irvine Spectrum, you’ll find CUCINA enoteca front and center in the Edwards Courtyard across from the Edwards movie theaters. True to Socal (and Irvine) form, the restaurant has a laidback and approachable vibe without any sacrifice in quality for their full-of-Italian-goodness food.  Have we mentioned desserts?! Their airy nutella zeppole is the perfect way to end your meal on a balmy Southern California night. Cheers!

CUCINA enoteca at the Irvine Spectrum
CUCINA enoteca at the Irvine Spectrum

CUCINA enoteca
Irvine Spectrum
532 Spectrum Center Drive
Irvine, CA 92618
949.861.2222

Connect with CUCINA restaurants: Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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References   [ + ]

1. http://www.sandiegometro.com/2011/03/women-owned-business-owners-are-driven-by-an-entrepreneurial-spirit/
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End of Summer Bucket List

Here’s our End-of-Summer Bucket List to soak up the last bits of summer! Make sure you check out the links below!

End of Summer Bucket List
End of Summer Bucket List

OUTDOORS

See an outdoor movie: Movies on the Lawn * Go on a nature hike with friends (Quail Hill Trailhead, Bommer Canyon, Orchard Hills, San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary)  * Play a golf foursome at dawn  (Oak Creek Golf Club, Rancho San Joaquin Golf Course, Strawberry Farms Golf Club). * Go mountain biking through Bommer Canyon * Find a pick-up basketball/football game with your buddies * Take your yoga practice outdoors

FAMILY

Go to a farmer’s market at Mariner’s Church or the Great Park* Take a trip to Pretend City * Go to the water park at Boomers * Make sand castles on the beach * Go to Adventure Playground * Visit Irvine Regional Park * Have a water balloon fight * Rent bikes from Pedego Bikes

NIGHTLIFE

Make s’mores with friends* Take a nighttime ride on the orange balloon or ferris wheel * Listen to live music by a local band * Race go-carts at K1 Speed * Sit in the front row at the Irvine Improv * Host a poker night

EATS

Host a BBQ * Have a picnic at the park * Have breakfast in bed * Try a new recipe using seasonal ingredients  * Try out a new restaurant for date night (Pictured: truffle garlic bread from North Italia) * Visit a real chocolate factory at Choc XO

SELF IMPROVEMENT

Get lost in one of these summer reads * Get that six pack * Donate your time or money towards a cause that speaks to you * Unplug for one day (no computer, tablet, cell phone or TV) * Be a mentor to someone/find a mentor for yourself * Get ridiculously good at something * Pay it forward

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Bistango: A Restaurant That Grew Alongside Irvine

You could say he’s something of an original. And so is his restaurant: Bistango in Irvine. John Ghoukassian is the owner of Bistango Restaurant which will celebrate its 30 year anniversary next year. This is quite a feat considering Irvine itself was only formally incorporated 45 years ago.1)https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irvine,_California Here is the behind the scenes story of a restaurant that truly grew alongside the City of Irvine and its owner, whose story will take you half way around the world and then back to Irvine.

PHOTO: Bistango owner John Ghoukassian
PHOTO: Bistango owner John Ghoukassian

John’s First Restaurant Venture and his Narrow Escape from Tehran

Born and raised in Tehran, Iran, John dropped out of college to work for his father who was a restaurateur. Then, as a young man in his late 20s, John opened his own restaurant also in Tehran. He named it the Chattanooga!2)http://www.ocregister.com/articles/restaurant-510794-john-very.html What an impression such a name must have made on the customers in Tehran in the 1960s.

I believe in setting the trends rather than following the trend. Being a very patient person, it has paid off to persevere throughout all these years. – Owner, John Ghoukassian

Even at a young age, John was not one to follow the crowd and his restaurant was one of just a few Western-style restaurants in Tehran at that time. It became a success, seating almost 300 people. But as the Islamic Revolution began intensifying, running a Western-style restaurant in Tehran became extremely risky. When he couldn’t ensure that all the female patrons in the restaurant were covering their faces, he received threats for failing to enforcing Islamic law.3)http://www.ocregister.com/articles/restaurant-510794-john-very.html

The American name of his restaurant may have been some foreshadowing as he would eventually find his way to the United States. When it became too dangerous to stay in Tehran, he narrowly escaped to France where he was granted a visa and reunited with his family. Almost a year later in 1983, he received a visa for the United States.4)http://www.ocregister.com/articles/restaurant-510794-john-very.html

The last three decades have been comprised of many “colorful” years, turning points, ups and downs, hardships and successes. – John Ghoukassian

Soon after his arrival to the United States, he and two business partners took a bold move and opened a restaurant called Bistango in Beverly Hills’ famed Restaurant Row. The restaurant became a success almost immediately and although the partnership dissolved, John opened a second Bistango location, this time a bit south of LA in a young new city named: Irvine. 5)http://www.ocregister.com/articles/restaurant-510794-john-very.html

Bistango Finds its Home in Irvine

It was 1987 and Irvine was nothing like the bustling city that it is today. John leased restaurant space in the business district near John Wayne Airport, where Bistango still remains today. No one thought his restaurant would succeed in the business district.

Well, surely there are more farfetched stories, like a successful restaurant in Tehran named the Chattanooga. So despite the naysayers, John kept a quiet confidence about his restaurant.

PHOTO: Rack of lamb and scallops dishes
PHOTO: Rack of lamb and scallops dishes (Photo courtesy of Bistango Restaurant)

From the start, he made Bistango unique. Bistango offered live music, artwork on the walls and of course, great food. He admits the early years were tough but as Irvine grew, so did his business.

Many people did not think Bistango would be a success when this restaurant first opened in Irvine. But you proved those people wrong and Bistango has experienced much success. To what do you attribute yours and Bistango’s success?  

John: During the last three decades, there were many occasions I could have easily given up when the road got bumpy, but instead of giving up, I adjusted and adapted. You always need to constantly re-evaluate your business and be able to evolve in order to stay ahead. This requires creativity, self-assurance and a vision of where you want the business to go so you don’t become outdated.  

I believe in setting the trends rather than following the trend. Being a very patient person, it has paid off to persevere throughout all these years. With the help of a great team to execute my vision and direction, we have been able to beat the odds.

Speaking of having a great team, Timothy Doolittle, who has spent the last nine years worked alongside the likes of Wolfgang Puck and Emeril Lagasse is Bistango’s Executive Chef. 6)http://bistango.com/executive_chef.html

Bistango is known for “New American” cuisine, what types of cuisine do you draw inspiration from to create a dining experience unique to Bistango?

Timothy: Bistango has a long history that offers me a leg up on creating dishes that our guests will embrace. I am lucky enough to have the input of our longtime General Manager, Ray Saniiand and  owner John Ghoukassian to help me navigate our menu progression.  While I draw my inspiration from many global regions including Europe and Asia, our dishes always have a California touch.

PHOTO: Bistango Executive Chef Tim Doolittle
PHOTO: Bistango Executive Chef Timothy Doolittle (Photo courtesy of Bistango Restaurant)

Finding success in a competitive field, Timothy had this advice for anyone wanting to become a chef.

Timothy: Be realistic about your expectations. The hours are demanding. Holidays are not what they used to be. Failure is far more likely than success. But it can be totally rewarding and worth the tremendous sacrifice. Anything worthwhile is not easy.

While most anyone can grill a filet mignon, it requires far more skill to prepare a cassoulet or short ribs and they are far more satisfying for me, whether I am cooking or eating. Anything worthwhile is not easy. – Executive Chef Timothy Doolittle

What are your signature dishes or favorite ingredients to cook with?

Timothy: Typically I get the most enjoyment from preparing things that take a lot of time like veal stock, sauces, confit, BBQ, roasted or braised meats.  I gain great satisfaction from taking something humble and making it great. Interestingly, what were once considered peasant foods oftentimes demand special attention, base knowledge and experience to get right.  While most anyone can grill a filet mignon, it requires far more skill to prepare a cassoulet or short ribs and they are far more satisfying for me, whether I am cooking or eating.

PHOTO: Chef Doolittle prepares Roasted Ruby Beets salad
PHOTO: Chef Doolittle prepares Roasted Ruby Beets salad (Photo courtesy of Bistango Restaurant)

Bistango has called Irvine its home for almost 30 years. How has it been, watching the restaurant grow as Irvine has grown?

John: The last three decades have been comprised of many “colorful” years, turning points, ups and downs, hardships and successes. As Irvine has grown, we have learned to adjust, adapt and listen to our customers’ needs and the rest becomes second nature.

When asked what he enjoys, John answers with a smile, “Good food, good music and good art!” Visit Bistango to experience its New American cuisine, live music and art. We hope you enjoy dining there especially after getting to know owner John Ghoukassian and Executive Chef Timothy Doolittle a little better.

Bistango Restaurant
19100 Von Karman Avenue
Irvine, California 92612
949.752.5222
info@bistango.com
www.bistango.com

Zagat Review.

Connect with Bistango on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

References   [ + ]

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irvine,_California
2, 3, 4, 5. http://www.ocregister.com/articles/restaurant-510794-john-very.html
6. http://bistango.com/executive_chef.html
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