Raga vs. Ragù

Bellevue melting-pot hasn't quite melded.

INDIA AND ITALY? The combo isn't as far-fetched as you'd think. Gandhi admired Garibaldi, and Tagore, the bard of Bengal, adored Tasso. When the Mughal Emperor Shah Jehan built the Taj Mahal, the ornate tile work of the grand mausoleum was entrusted to Italian artisans. (Bet you didn't know that!) More recently, Zoroastrian Indo-Brit rock icon Farokh Balsara ( better known hereabouts as Freddy Mercury ) put South Asia's Italian fetish to music with the familiar refrain of his Bohemian rhapsody: "Mama Mia, let me go." But until Cucina Mama Mia opened its doors in a Bellevue strip mall six months ago, Italian food remained unfused. No more. A South Asian-run, internationally staffed Italian restaurant is the latest addition to Bellevue's immigrant demimonde. Cucina is owned by South Asian-born Eastside restaurateur Shah Khan (Mughal Palace, India Gate). The dining room is staffed by friendly African servers. And the chef is from Mexico. If that weren't enough to dispel any warm, fuzzy Italian feelings, the dining room is cold, as in insufficiently heated, which dispels any warm, fuzzy feelings period. And we really would have preferred not hearing about Vinnie, the Italian chef, whosotto vocejust didn't show up for work one day because he got tired of riding the bus between Bellevue and Seattle, but not to worry, the nice Mexican guy in the kitchen has worked in at least two Italian restaurants. In Mexico! Mama Mia, let me go! Diners with less resolve might have flown the coop, but we ordered, and directed our attention to the dramatic "Italian frescoes" on Cucina's far wall. One showed a happy gaggle of Italians picking fruit. Another displayed a very blue seascape with figures gamboling about vegetation that looked suspiciously South Asian. And our food arrived to familiar strains of Pavarotti belting out a well-digitized aria. Like the frescoes, the food was just that odd little bit off. My gnocchi ($9.29) were saut饤 with spinach, garlic, crimini mushrooms, and vine tomatoes and had a nice, chewy texture, but the high salt content of the gorgonzola cream sauce they were finished in precluded the possibility of flavor other than salt. My companion's penne puttanesca ($9.99) in a sauce of capers, anchovy, garlic, kalamata olives, and vine-ripened tomatoes was zesty and flavorsome, but the pasta was overcooked, and the anchovies seemed to be there in name only. Haltingly, we ordered tiramisu ($3.95) for dessert, expecting a less than stellar showing in the dolci department. Surprisingly, it was superb. The kitchen outdid itself and served up a light, cunningly resilient, fluffy, flamboyant concoction of brandy and espresso-soaked lady fingersa sort of culinary "so there!" After a mediocre meal, it left us stunned and mumbling something inaudible about how sweet it was. But sweet (in patches) was all it was (and that includes the prompt, polite service). Even after six months, Mama Mia needs work. But what's that they say about Rome not being built built in a day? Or the Taj Mahal, for that matter. food@seattleweekly.com

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