East Grace Street isn’t as hot as “Hamilton” yet, but it inches closer to an increasingly appetizing neighborhood with the addition of Lucca Enoteca, a spirited Mediterranean eatery already seducing diners with a handsome room and intriguing food.
Your course could be set for a reasonably priced nonsandwich lunch near the business district, a grab-and-go pizza — the coal-fired oven produces a pie in about five minutes — or a delightful dinner boasting vegetables so fresh they could have fallen off the farm wagon this morning. Lucca’s charms are abundant.
Much of the stuffiness of the dining room at the former 525 at the Berry Burke has been noticeably relaxed, registering lighter and more airy than it once did, with a welcoming large table set amid the sea of two- and four-tops and the pizza oven at the center of the room.
Ignore the Segway tour groups outside and instead behold the room’s centerpiece. Sunny yellow stools surround Lucca’s crudo bar — serving East and West Coast oysters, along with market fish done Italian-style with olive oil, sea salt and herbs to bring out the seafood’s flavor.
To say the kitchen takes its crudo seriously is an understatement. When I inquire about the market fish on my third visit, our server informs us that there is none on this night because the fish wasn’t up to the chef’s standards. No such problem with oysters ($10 per half dozen), especially during happy hour when each bivalve can be slurped for a dollar off.
Allow me to introduce you to octopus and fingerling potato salad ($10), a dish your lips won’t soon forget and one that encapsulates Lucca’s deft touch with the bounty of the sea. With nothing more than olive oil, parsley and lemon, bites of tender octopus recall visits to coastal Italy where the simplicity of such dishes pairs with the coastal sunshine.
Seconds, please, on mussels and chorizo with potatoes in a fennel broth ($11), a dish that shows off a noticeably more flamboyant flavor profile as leftovers the next day when the broth has taken on more of the sausage’s heat. Plenty of good bread is important to savoring every last drop.
That’s not to say that meat can’t push all the right buttons too. Take the bone-in pork chop — tender, meaty and draped in a spicy red pepper glaze that ratchets up the oomph factor, while getting hearty support from roasted fingerling potatoes and cabbage. Clean your plate and you won’t be hungry anytime soon.
Chef Andrew Manning’s years cooking in Italy show through in abundant portions hefty enough to pass muster with an Italian grandmother. Fat chunks of smoked bacon and slivers of red onion punctuate toothsome rigatoni ($14) in an earthy, spiced tomato sauce. But if you can lick the bowl clean, there’s probably a food coma in your future.
When the thought of yet another sandwich for lunch ruins your appetite, Lucca saves the day like a superhero. Both crispy chicken Milanese ($10) and fat lamb meatballs ($11) beckon, roosting atop a spring vegetable medley that deserves a photo op with their cast of brilliant fresh peas, sauteed Brussels sprouts, asparagus, radishes and potatoes competing for the starring role.
When nothing but a pie will do, the menu offers six types of coal-fired pizza including the Picante Bianco ($22) showered with spicy chorizo, roasted peppers, ricotta and buffalo mozzarella, a welcome diversion from red-sauce ubiquity.
The season’s bounty winningly reappears in panna cotta ($6) dolled up with sweet cream under a pink crown of fresh strawberries and rhubarb, while the soft ganache of chocolate and hazelnut crostada ($8) satisfies when only something dark will do.
With its prime real estate across from Dominion Arts Center, Lucca deserves to be on the food warrior’s short list for a menu worth spending time with — and not just an easy default for pre-show dining. Those who make up the young staff have been schooled in customer-focused basics even as they continue to fine-tune the experience in a low-key, congenial manner.
Collecting a tray of empty oyster shells, our bubbly server surveys the damage with a smile. “That’s how I want to go out: laying on a lemon wedge, feeling fancy.” Who doesn’t? It’s hard not to fall for a place with personality in the service and on the plate. S
Mondays 11 a.m.-9 p.m.;
Tuesdays-Thursdays 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fridays 11 a.m.-11 p.m.;
Saturdays 4-11 p.m.
525 E. Grace St.