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ITHACA, N.Y. — From the outside, ZaZa’s Cucina on Ithaca’s Route 13 looks much the same as it always has. Inside, owner/operator and former executive chef Curtis Radcliffe walks a fine line between tradition and innovation.

Trying to cultivate a new culture under the mantle of a 14 year foundation has been challenging to say the least.

“That’s the line that I’m always walking and people are sure to let me know if I step one way or another,” Radcliffe said. “I’m executing my vision of what I think this property can be.”

Since he took over restaurant’s ownership in September 2015, Radcliffe has put a renewed focus on getting back to basics.

Back to basics

The essence of Italian cooking, he said, is utilizing terroir, the environment and ingredients around you. For Radcliffe, that means personally going out to forage for ramps in the spring, and chanterelles in the summer.

“My philosophy is simple: we try to use the best ingredients possible and let them speak for themselves, and let those flavors come through,” said Radcliffe.

Because of this, much of his responsibility revolves around sourcing the best ingredients possible, locally in season and imported from Europe.

“What I’m bringing to the table is my passion for hospitality and for food, with my passion for local farms, local ingredients, supporting other local food artisans and just going back to the basics and using the best quality ingredients,” Radcliffe said.

Radcliffe hopes to break down whole pigs and lambs and utilize cuts of meat not often seen on menus anymore. “We’re going to start being a more nose to tail establishment which is very much traditional Italian,” he said.

In the meantime, the largest change has been to the pasta. With brand new pasta extruder from Italy, all of ZaZa’s pasta is now made in house.

From the spaghetti Bolognese to the mushroom pappardelle (a perennial favorite) all of the pasta is now made in house. Diners can look forward to more fresh made pasta options, including tagliatelle, cavatappi, gnocchi and specialty ravioli.

While the menu doesn’t look very different at the outset, the focus is still primarily northern Italian prepared with French culinary techniques, and some Southern Italian seafood as well, Radcliffe plans to shake things up.

“As long as we’re being true to the ZaZa’s values are as far as the level of hospitality and sourcing of ingredients and creating everything from scratch, you’re going to start seeing things that are pushing the boundaries of Italian cuisine,” Radcliffe said.

He plans to branch out and touch on other cuisines in daily specials, their new brunch menu and wine dinners. ZaZa’s will be hosting a wine dinner in partnership with a local winery later this summer.

Smoked Salmon Eggs Benedict. Yum! #ithacaeats #brunch #cornell #ithacacollege #foodporn

A photo posted by ZaZa’s Cucina Restaurant (@zazascucinaithaca) on

“It was never a restaurant before it was ZaZa’s.”

Before it was ZaZa’s, the space at 622 Cascadilla Street was a video store, Video Ithaca. Local restaurateur Lex Chutintaranond began to completely re-purpose the space beginning in 2001, digging out the center “pit” dining area, giving ZaZa’s its iconic theater-in-the-round feel.

“I entered into this business like how a lot of people do – washing dishes and doing prep,” admitted Radcliffe. Moving from kitchen to kitchen, he decided he wanted to refine his skills and attended the Culinary Institute of America in the mid-2000s.

Early on, he had two long stints at local restaurants, The Antlers, and Maxie’s Supper Club. In 2007, he came on board ZaZa’s as their executive chef until 2012.

During this time, Radcliffe worked closely developing the concept and menus for Mia Restaurant on the Commons with Chutintaranond. Even as Radcliffe moved on to become a corporate executive chef for Corning Incorporated, they maintained a close working relationship.

“When the opportunity arose in early 2015 to begin the conversation with Lex about purchasing ZaZa’s it was something right away that I jumped on,” Radcliffe said.

Sprinkled among wall art, along the bar and underneath the prominent Bacchanalian mural, there are roosters all around the restaurant. “It is a traditional Italian thing, but what people don’t also know is Lex was born the year of the cock and so was I, actually,” said Radcliffe, referring to the Chinese zodiac related to the Chinese calendar, which cycles every 12 years.

“Him and I, we come from very different backgrounds, but are very, very similar. I’ve toned down the rooster theme, but it’s something that we’ll always maintain to a certain level.”

“It’s not just about the food, or the wine or the local art that we’re hanging on the wall – it’s about hospitality as a whole, and every person’s experience when they come to ZaZa’s. I want people to come to ZaZa’s for all those things and how they tie together,” Radcliffe said.

ZaZa's Cucina

622 Cascadilla Street, Ithaca, NY |14850 | (607) 273-9292 ZaZa's Cucina offers traditional Italian cuisine with contemporary flair in an upscale casual atmosphere. Hospitality; it is what drives us at...

Jennifer Wholey

Jennifer Wholey is a feature writer and Head of Dining Partnerships for the Ithaca Voice. Contact her at jwholey@ithacavoice.com.