A Culinary Exploration
By Annette Verde
Everybody has a story. Some are coming-of-age narratives; others are romances—a few, even thrillers. Most are tales of overcoming adversity and all hold the promise that the best is yet to come. But the stories that timelessly captivate us are those in which the main character possesses absolute clarity about who they are at their core. We are drawn to their stories not by the lead characters’ power or money, but by their ability to firmly stand for something bigger than themselves. They produce results through confidence in their vision, never questioning the twisting path that leads them to unexpected places and discoveries, yet always arriving at a deeper appreciation of life.
While Ken Millo is probably not a name well known, everyone who has enjoyed the rebirth of the Pioneer Park neighborhood of Salt Lake City has been touched by his story and contributions to the community. When Millo came to Utah in the late 1980s to open his architectural firm, he and his wife brought with them a love of the varied metropolitan culture they had enjoyed in Seattle, Honolulu and Southeast Asia. Millo was certain that Pioneer Park held the possibility of America’s greatest virtue being realized in Utah: diversity. With confidence and clear conviction, Ken quietly went about being the nexus point for what has become the most dramatically executed urban renewal and culturally rich sectors of Salt Lake City.
One of the many public benefits of this venture has been the creation of Millo’s Cucina Restaurant Group, a quartet of restaurants that have set a higher bar for dining excellence. True to his leadership style, Ken clearly envisioned the depth and gratification exceptional urbane dining would bring to his community, and paved the way for passionate, culinary professionals to express their craftsmanship. Joined by two epicurean visionaries, Elio Scanu and Jean Louis Montecot, Cucina Restaurant Group has become the trendsetter of progressive, exquisite and acclaimed culinary arts in Salt Lake City.
Eleven years ago, the flagship restaurant CUCINA TOSCANA (sprung from an historic Firestone garage building) was transformed into a facility you would expect to find in Architectural Digest. Millo expertly incorporated an open show kitchen, soft lighting, upholstered seating and an intimate atmosphere. Elio Scanu, the Cucina Restaurant Group operations director, corporate chef, and commander of all things Italian, took his decades of experience and created a menu that is a masterpiece of the classic dishes cleverly brought up-to-date by modern techniques and innovative ingredients.
A native of Asti, Italy, Scanu says, “Today, Italian cuisine is about fresh, nourishing food. Cucina Toscana’s menu changes seasonally so I can shop for what is garden-fresh to market, full of flavor and health. We are offering more fish and adding ingenious dishes created by the new generation of Italian chefs. Dishes like Beet Gnocchi with Goat Cheese Cream, and Saffron Cappellini with Fresh Crabmeat and Spicy Tomato are sure to make every meal a new, exciting experience.”
Transport your taste buds by trying Il Carpaccio Cipriani, created by Giuseppe Cipriani in the 1950s for Harry’s Bar in Venice, or the Risotto ai Due Ori, a signature dish of saffron risotto with edible gold leaf. La Garmugia Lucchese, a farmer’s soup of broad beans, asparagus, green peas, pancetta and seasonal mushroom, or Salumi Regionali and other Antipasti selections, are also popular starters. House-made pastas, like the Malfatti Bianco e Nero pasta with scallops, shrimp and calamari ragout in a mascarpone-pepper mousse and Prosecco butter sauce, or the Tuscan Gnocchi of ricotta and spinach, co-exist delightfully with famous recipes from La Pergola restaurant in Rome and the Aimo e Nadia restaurant in Milan.
Choose from Cucina Toscana’s main menu of pastas, fish, meat or vegetarian dishes, or enjoy the daily specials whipped up by Chef Scanu. The wine list has a nice selection by the glass, and servers are very knowledgeable about the menu and wine pairings. Save room for dessert of chocolate torte, Tiramisu or classic, light, melt-in- your-mouth Panna Cotta. Cucina Toscana is open for dinner only, Monday through Saturday 5:30-10:00 p.m. VIVACE, winner of the 2013 “Best New Restaurant” award and the sassy sister restaurant to Cucina Toscana, is located on the south side of the Firestone building where, until the 1940s, a corner drive-through gas station used to be. The atmosphere is hip, lively and fun, especially during the summer, with outdoor patio seating, and an overhead rolling garage door that opens an entire wall to the outdoors and a view of Pioneer Park. “At Vivace, we want to present fresh food along the lines of everyday cooking in Italy,” says Elio Scanu. “It’s a little more rustic, good simple food, taking advantage of our location across the street from the Salt Lake Farmer’s Market.”
The experience begins with crusty bread and some aschugata, a dipping sauce made of olive oil, anchovies, lemon and capers to whet your appetite. Vivace’s menu features a variety of antipasti dishes including the Salumi and Piatto di Formaggi platters. “Il Baldacchino” or Crudo Bar, is a separate, high marble-topped table where diners can sample a variety of smoked meats, fish and vegetables like the Crudo Salmone, salmon cured with beets, cucumber, radish, lime and fresh apple horseradish sauce; or the Gamberetto all Griglia, a delicious combination of grilled shrimp, pickled beet salad, Burrata mozzarella, pistachios, arugula and wild herb honey. Vivace features a wood and charcoal oven to impart earthy flavors to their grilled meats and pizzas. Chef
Steve Garner, a graduate of San Francisco’s Culinary Institute of America, and formerly at the helm of Pago, Sundance’s Tree Room and other Salt Lake area hotspots, continues to tweak and play with menu offerings like the Scottadita, grilled lamb chops, eggplant agrodolce, potatoes and salsa verde; or the Polpo, grilled octopus with roasted potatoes and greens.
Diners can select from the menu or try the Cena Vivace, or signature supper, a distinctly Italian approach to food that is meant to be shared, and unique to the evening of your visit. Choose the Tutta three-course option that includes a heaping antipasti platter, pasta and grilled selections; the Piccola two- course option with antipasti and pasta; or the Piccolina, a large antipasti platter that includes cheeses, grilled vegetables and cured meats. Vivace’s bartenders get creative with refreshing Ginger Mojitos, a Ginger Mint Saffron Martini, and Blood Orange Cosmos. Don’t miss the award-winning, house-made gelato and tasty crepes, and stop by on Thursday nights for Vivace’s summer concert series. Open Monday through Saturday for lunch from 11:00-1:00 p.m., dinner 5:30-10:00 p.m. during the week, and brunch on Saturdays. If you’re leaving town and didn’t have a chance to experience this fun restaurant, get to the airport early and go to the Vivace airport location in Delta’s Concourse D.
Cucina Restaurant Group’s latest addition, CATERINA, is located in the Sugarhouse neighborhood of Salt Lake City. When acclaimed local French Chef Jean Louis began exploring his next venture, Millo pursued him in earnest. Ken had dined in one of Jean Louis’ establishments some years prior, and Ken knew him to be a kindred soul in the arena of professional excellence. Together they have created a French dining room unlike others you may have experienced. Hand-blown, gold-infused Murano glass chandeliers, antique tin ceilings and unique architectural details are reminiscent of elegant restaurants in Paris; the outdoor patio area shaded by lively yellow awnings will transport you to a European-style sidewalk dining experience. Caterina’s menu is a chef-d’oeuvre of traditional French cuisine reinvented by Jean Louis’ vast experience as a chef in some of the world’s finest kitchens. “I have crafted my own style,” says Jean Louis, “I like to add some drama and excitement to basic techniques of French cooking.”
Appetizer highlights include: Caramelized Onion & Goat Cheese Tart; Wild Mushroom Cake served with Tomato Coulis and Parsley Oil; a traditional Moules Marniere of fresh mussels cooked in white wine and garlic butter; and a charcuterie platter with house-made prosciutto, dry salami, rillettes of duck and grilled country bread. Try the classic Nicoise Salad with the popular Petite Vegetable Soup for a lighter meal. Choosing an entrée may be difficult with offerings like Duck Confit; Porc Vallee d’Auge: medallions of pork tenderloin served with caramelized apple, mushroom and a Calvados cream reduction; Le Navarin d’Agneau, a dish of slow cooked lamb in a light tomato sauce with seasonal vegetables; and Grilled Airline Chicken Breast with a Mustard Seed Vermouth reduction.
Caterina is open year-round for dinner Monday through Saturday 5:30-10:00 p.m. and for lunch in spring and summer. Cucina Restaurant Group and the three visionaries that lead it, Ken Millo, Elio Scanu, and Jean Louis Montecot, look forward to you joining them for an unforgettable meal. Along with enjoying Italian or French food that far exceeds your expectations, you’ll know you have met visionaries whose creations are worthy of your partaking.