A few minutes into exploring the little cutting board loaded with salumi-duck prosciutto, pancetta, other meat candy varieties-I was seduced by a sun-dried tomato, of all things. The more of those tangy bits I ate, the less attractive the board of flavorful meat became. This was the first unexpected delight I found at Z Cucina.

A few minutes into exploring the little cutting board loaded with salumi-duck prosciutto, pancetta, other meat candy varieties-I was seduced by a sun-dried tomato, of all things. The more of those tangy bits I ate, the less attractive the board of flavorful meat became. This was the first unexpected delight I found at Z Cucina.

By our third and final visit, I had unlocked the cipher of chef Jamie George's menu: It's stocked with solid classics, but the best choices are the ones that bear a more personal mark. Look for words like "hand-crafted" and "house" and mine the menu of nightly specials, which tend to color outside the lines of steady, reliable Italian food.

Z Cucina's welcoming touch starts right as guests walk in the door. An ebullient Rick Ziliak, the restaurant's owner and frequently its host, is usually the one to guide diners to a window seat if it's a quiet night (yes, you're being politely used as window dressing and a lure to passersby). He'll explain with gusto the restaurant's culinary mission: George and the kitchen staff make pastas, some cheeses, charcuterie and bread in-house, and ingredients are sourced locally or sustainably when possible. The full-throated welcome is charming, if a tad disarming: When was the last time a host stuck around your table to brag on the house and rev your appetite? What a nice change of pace.

George is a veteran of Columbus Italian restaurants-Trattoria Roma and Basi Italia are on his resume. At Z Cucina, he changes the menu a few times a year, keeping some favorites (Stuffed Parmigiano Risotto Fritters, $8, are a grown-up take on mozzarella sticks and are in high demand) and introducing new dishes that embrace the season. We ate from the fall menu, but a winter menu was introduced in mid-December.

Lucky for you the Linguine Frutti di Mare ($19) is still available. This obligatory Italian restaurant standard is rarely bad, but it's rarely a standout, either. Here, it's packed with oceanic clams, shrimp and fish and smothered in an addictive tomato sauce-hang on to a couple of slices of yeasty focaccia from the bread basket to sop up any extra.

The night of the salumi board ($13), we also devoured an order of Hand Pulled Mozzarella ($9). A big hunk of made in-house cheese-softer, saltier and creamier than fresh cow's-milk or buffalo mozzarella-is drizzled with bright pesto and scattered with chilled oven-roasted tomatoes, their sweetness ready to burst under puckered skin. Among salads, Insalata Caesar ($8) fared best, mostly because of a spoonful of potent anchovy relish tucked near the lip of the plate. Make the most of this flavor by distributing it in the crevices of crisp romaine leaves, even though you might be tempted to scoop it up and eat it in one bite, it's so good. Take a pass on the Grilled House Italian Sausage ($10) starter, which, though it's billed as house-made, was dry and generic, and its seasoning was overwhelmed by salt. A neat, sweet tomato sauce helped but couldn't rescue the dish.

We were again rewarded for wandering off the beaten path on the "Z Moderne Plates" menu. Slow Braised Duck Ragout ($26)-it's been replaced with a Duo of Local Duck ($25) on the winter menu-was a tribute to rustic Italian cooking, with oversized spinach and parmesan gnocchi and a ragout that that was simultaneously tangy, sweet and earthy. Like most rustic cooking, it wasn't pretty, but it was soul-satisfying. In contrast, a Smoked Chicken Cannelloni ($17, also no longer on the menu) was a head-scratcher. The "cannelloni" were deep-fried tubes filled with a homogenous mass of minced chicken, then covered in an uninteresting tomato sauce and a dab of the hand-pulled mozzarella. The pasta grew soggy under the sauce, rendering the entire dish a single chewy texture.

Two other entrees-Roasted Amish Chicken Braciole ($22) and Mustard Crusted Seared Rare Tuna ($27)-were flavorful enough, but lacked oomph. The tuna, which was cooked beautifully and served at ambient temperature, has been re-envisioned for the winter menu as peppercorn crusted and served with tomato, bell pepper and olive ragout and some wild arugula ($27).

Z's Specialty Cocktails are built for mass appeal, but not in a very imaginative way. The list is populated mostly with cliches (Chocolate Martini, Espressotini, Pomegranate Cosmo), unlike the cocktails at George's alma mater, Basi Italia, which are interesting without being alienating to a casual diner. The Mojito Italiano, with amaretto and rosemary, was sickly sweet. Better choices are the crisp Bulleit Bourbon Breeze ($9) and Watershed Barrel Aged Manhattan ($10) made with Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel bitters and Noilly Prat sweet vermouth and aged in a conditioned Watershed Distillery bourbon barrel. Instead, explore the by-the-glass wine list; Guigal Cote du Rhone ($8) and Juan Benegas malbec ($9) are recommended.

Z Cucina is a Grandview mainstay for good reason-guests are welcomed with genuine warmth, and they're treated well throughout their meal. The menu has old reliables by the boatload-the dishes you can turn to again and again when you just don't want dinner to be a challenge. But the kitchen's best work is in the margins, and they're worth seeking out.