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Choices at Oakland spot delight food and wine connoisseurs

Friday, August 10, 2001

By Woodene Merriman, Post-Gazette Dining Critic

Just when I decided His Honor couldn't learn anything more about ordering wine, he proved me wrong.

We were having lunch on the patio at Lucca, one of Pittsburgh's most pleasant, most civilized outdoor eating spots. Halfway through our salmon salad and penne arrabiata, eased down with glasses of Kendall Jackson chardonnay, H.H. asked to see the wine list. Bored with the conversation, I assumed, looking for something to read.

Claudia Foessel and Susan Nernberg enjoy lunch on the patio at Lucca. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette)

"Look at this. We could have had a glass of the Byron chardonnay or the Sparr riesling," he said, reading from the big list. "Instead, we're drinking Kendall Jackson, just because it was the best of the couple of wines the server suggested."

Lesson No. 1: Always ask to look at the wine list, no matter what the server suggests.

Lesson No. 2: H.H. can still learn something after all.

The patio at Lucca has everything I like for al fresco dining. The atmosphere is relaxing. It has a view. (Hair painted in fluorescent colors is still in vogue with the university crowd, we notice.) It has hanging baskets and pots of geraniums and petunias, white tablecloths on the tables for two or four, a big awning for shade, and friendly servers clad in black.

It also has an extensive wine list, as we now know, and a basically Italian, ambitious menu that shows off the imagination and talent of the chefs, Douglass Dick and Steven Thompson.

Every lunch, every dinner has a new, printed menu. Today for lunch we could have had mushroom-dusted New Zealand lamb chops with roasted garlic, Tuscan style mashed potatoes and vegetables. We could have preceded that with a trio of crab cakes with fire-roasted chutney and whole grain mustard cream as an appetizer, and the house salad of organically grown field greens tossed with carrots, tomatoes and cucumbers with a balsamic vinaigrette. We could have -- if we had the legendary capacity of Diamond Jim Brady and Lillian Russell.

Panini are on the lunch menu, along with meat, fish, appetizers and salads. The panini, I was forewarned, are really big sandwiches, served on Italian bread with warm pasta salad and mixed green salad. They, too, are for people who like a big lunch.

As it is, H.H. is overwhelmed by the size of his simple-sounding salad. A thick cut of salmon, perfectly pan-seared, tops off a bowl of organic greens, tossed with carrots, tomato wedges, pepperoncini, hard-cooked eggs and feta cheese, dressed with a pleasant raspberry vinaigrette. I'm doing my best to help him out; when tomatoes are in season, bright red and juicy, I can't let any go back to the kitchen uneaten.

My penne arrabiata with shrimp and garlic has a not-too-spicy, smooth tomato-basil cream sauce. The shrimp are large and plentiful, too. No complaints here.

Lucca's patio is just as comfortable at night, when the tiny lights under the awning and the little Victorian lamps on the tables are lit. For a recent dinner, we even got the prime people-watching table on the patio. It's the table for two at the corner of Craig and Filmore streets.

We had a lot of time for looking, too. Service at Lucca has two speeds -- slow and slower.

But the food makes up for the slow service. The fresh tomato and goat cheese bruschetta appetizer, for example, is the best we've had in Pittsburgh. The roasted baguette slices, rubbed with oil and garlic, were crisp, not hard. The bruschetta had been heated after it was assembled, so the slice of tomato and the goat cheese were warm and melting a little into the toast. Julienned basil then was sprinkled on top. Everything stayed put, making it easy to eat as well as delicious. So often (at other restaurants) the toppings on bruschetta fall off as you try to eat it.

Dick, who is executive chef, and Thompson do a number of interesting appetizers. A jumbo sea scallop and micro sprout salad with roasted tomato coulis was also on the menu, as well as pan-seared calamari with sauteed spinach and imported goat cheese atop tomato-basil cream.

The words "organic," "fresh" and "local" turn up again and again in the menus, giving a clue to what's important here. Typical would be our salad of "local organic" arugula with micro sprouts, strips of roasted bell peppers, caramelized Cippoline onions and gorgonzola cheese, with a lemon shallot vinaigrette.

Chef Dick is willing to try new, interesting ingredients. Those Cippoline onions are sweet and small, no bigger than a 50-cent piece, and great in the salad. He's been using fennel pollen on lamb chops for some time. And one of the featured entrees tonight is risotto-style farro, that old Roman grain that's popular once again. This is the first time I've seen farro on a Pittsburgh menu. Dick serves it al dente, with wild mushrooms, caramelized onions, roasted garlic, mascarpone and gorgonzola cheese. It's an earthy, hearty dish, and would be a good choice for a vegetarian, too.

Chef Dick, 30, has been at Lucca a little more than two years. He previously had worked at the Duquesne Club, which seems to be training a lot of good young chefs turning up in Pittsburgh restaurants. His sidekick, Chef Thompson, 23, at one time worked at Hyeholde in Moon.

Lucca's owners now are Tom Chianelli, Bob Antonelli and Joe Jordan, the trio who most recently also operated Cafe Victoria on the North Side. In June, they closed Cafe Victoria to concentrate on Lucca, according to Pamela Chianelli, Tom's sister who is also manager of Lucca. They're relatively new owners of Lucca, and have done some refurbishing, but the layout is still essentially the same as it was when this was Cafe Azure.

They've assembled an admirable, heavily Italian wine list at Lucca, featuring 17 whites and 17 reds by the bottle, and a surprising 36 wines by the glass. Yes, H.H. sat there and counted them all, bemoaning what all he had missed.

We missed something else at Lucca: dessert. We passed when the waiter suggested tiramisu and creme brulee. Sounded boring. Big mistake.

Too late I discovered that desserts are one of Chef Dick's specialties. He makes fresh fruit tarts, fruit sorbets, tiramisu, his own ice cream, three or four creme brulees, and what he believes are some of the better cheesecakes in town. I feel another visit to Lucca coming on.

317 S. Craig St., Oakland

Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., Monday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Friday and Saturday; dinner, 5:30-10 p.m.; Monday-Thursday; 5:30-11 p.m., Friday and Saturday; 5-9 p.m. Sunday.

The basics: Upscale, expensive, basically Italian restaurant with pleasant patio overlooking busy Craig Street; seats 32 on patio, 65 in two rooms inside; parking on street or in nearby public lots; entertainment on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights; dining room is smoke free, but smoking is permitted on porch and at bar inside; a la carte menu with appetizers generally $7-$15; salads, $6-$12; pastas, $17-$25; fish, $24-$25; meat, $23-$32; lunch entree prices all $14 and under; normally not noisy; wheelchair accessible; major credit cards; reservations.

The last word:3 1/2 stars

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