Tuscan on Craig:
As the deans know, there's a lot to love about Lucca
Thursday, January 18, 2007
By Elizabeth Downer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
317 S. Craig St., Oakland
Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays dinner 5-close.
Basics: This upscale, casual restaurant named after a Tuscan town famous for great dining has a menu that
focuses on Italian cuisine. There is a patio for outside dining in fine weather and live music most weekends.
Appetizers, $6-$13; entrees, $10-$15 at lunch and $22-$35 at dinner; desserts, $6-$7; wines, $8-$12 for a 6-ounce pour.
Summary: Non Smoking, major credit cards accepted. Free parking after 5 p.m; on-street with meters
before 5 p.m.
Noise level: Low.
Although Lucca Ristorante is on
South Craig Street in the heart of Oakland's college country, you are not likely to encounter many students dining there.
While students flock to the Original Hot Dog Shop or the many ethnic
dining spots in the neighborhood, the Lucca crowd is more apt to be Carnegie museum curators, university professors and deans
or the many East End residents who regard the place as their "local."
The lunch and dinner menus vary slightly. Unfortunately, the panini served with warm pasta salads that were once
on the luncheon menu are gone, but the list of entrees is extensive. In addition to various pastas, there are fish, quail,
pork chops and duck breast.
Grilled Quail ($12) is served with fresh
pumpkin puree and sauteed zucchini and yellow squash and complemented by a sauce of port wine and fig jus. The pumpkin puree
was an interesting and original choice of side dish for this entree, but the squash saute was somewhat puzzling. I would have
preferred a vegetable with a crunch or a grain to go with the puree and quail.
Penne pasta ($15) is combined with tiger prawns in a creamy tomato and fresh basil sauce spiked with chili peppers.
The chilis provided a welcome zing to the standard sauce, but the large pasta portion contained only four medium-sized shrimp.
My favorite item on the lunch menu was Crimini Mushroom Risotto ($10), served as a vegetarian entree at lunch or as a side
dish with pork chops at dinner. The chef has added al dente asparagus pieces and finely diced pancetta to the creamy rice,
sauteed mushrooms and cheese. Each rice grain offered a chewy center that helped give a great variation in textures to the
From the appetizer menu, I would certainly order Tomato
Bisque ($7) again. It was not really a bisque at all as there was not a drop of milk or cream. It is a chunky tomato puree,
intensely flavored and nicely seasoned with basil, red peppers and a bit of hot paprika. The chef uses fresh tomatoes. Served
in a miniature white soup tureen, this zuppa del giorno was a better winter-night choice than any bisque I might have been
expecting. The soups change daily. Other favorites of the chef are French onion soup, seafood bisque and fish chowders.
Zuppe di cozze e vongole ($10) is a sexy-sounding way of saying steamed mussels and
clams. The steaming broth is seasoned with tomato, saffron and white wine and provides the extra bonus of a tasty dipping
sauce for crusty Italian bread. Calamari pan-tossed with tomato, basil and arugula ($10) is an original way to prepare squid.
The cephalopod is cut into bite-sized pieces, stewed with fresh tomatoes and greens and mixed with fusilli pasta tubes. This
welcome change from battered and fried squid has a decidedly Sicilian flavor. Close your eyes, and you could be in Palermo.
Caesar Salad ($8), although created by an Italian chef, is American, not Italian. The
Lucca version of the romaine lettuce classic was a disappointment. The dressing was bland and the parmesan cheese was soft
and had been shredded rather than shaved.
Nothing on the entree menu
is as authentic as the calamari, but there are touches of Italy throughout. Sea Bass ($25) is served with a pasta called pizzoccheri,
which is made with buckwheat noodles, diced potatoes, lots of butter and seasoned with sage and garlic. In the Italian Alps,
where this dish originated, it also includes chopped savoy cabbage, which makes it a close relative of our own halushki.
Filetti di Salmone ($25) is a grilled salmon fillet topped with beurre blanc and served
with a round cake of thinly sliced potatoes baked with rosemary and lots of butter. The root vegetables that accompany the
salmon are an interesting combination of carrots, rutabagas and turnips, a multicolored blend. A nice vegetarian entree is
fettuccini ($22) with artichokes, fresh tomato and feta in garlic and olive oil sauce. A giant-size bowl of pasta was more
than ample for dinner and for lunch at home another day.
Hazelton is Lucca's pastry chef. The desserts change daily, but tiramisu and house-made ice creams and sorbets are always
on the menu. Tiramisu must be very popular; there was none left on either of my visits. Warm peaches and berries ($7) served
with a scoop of ice cream was made with frozen fruit and little else. The Apple Bread Pudding ($7) served with cinnamon ice
cream and caramel sauce contained lots of bread and very little apple. The pudding, made in a bombe-shape mold, was cold and
tasteless. It lacked the custard quality that I expect in a bread pudding. Almond Creme Brulee ($7) gets my vote for the best
dessert. Serving it with an almond macaroon was a nice touch.
wine list is nicely divided into regions of Italy, France and the United States and totals about 100 wines. Strangely, for
a restaurant named Lucca, the French and American wine selections far outnumber those from Italy and for the most part are
more interesting and affordable. I would choose a Kenwood Sauvignon Blanc for $28 any day over a pinot grigio from the Trentino
region of Italy for $40. There are 14 wines available by the glass, ranging from a California riesling for $8 to a California
Cabernet Sauvignon for $12 for a 6-ounce pour.
The private residence
that houses Lucca has been attractively decorated with dark green walls with colorful European advertising posters and high-backed
upholstered chairs. The tables are marble or granite and set with linen napkins at dinner and paper napkins at lunch. I would
love to remove the masses of plastic fruit and vines hanging over a partial partition, which I find interferes with the sophisticated
elements of the decor. In the evening, the lights in the front dining room are dimmed beyond reason. Nobody likes bright lights,
but it would be nice to have enough light to read the menu.