Welcome Challenged – But they Warm Up to You

As people in this group know, my head is always turned by those new places, so when I am selecting which restaurant will come next on our roster, the new spaces usually have the advantage, followed by old favorites where we had really good dinners before.IMG_3210 Usually the neighborhood stops that look interesting, but don’t have much publicity, are the ones it takes me awhile to get around to. Sometimes they just fall off my radar (yes, that does mean I’ve forgotten about them) and sometimes they lose their promise along the way, so then I think, okay, there must be somewhere more tantalizing than that to have the dinner. If these smaller restaurants stay in business long enough though, and I drive by them now and then, and maybe I hear a favorable comment or two, then I usually get around to them. Also, in the case of our most recent dinner, Lucca, they have managed to stay in business in one of those cursed locations, the corner of 24th and Fremont, longer than any previous restaurant that has tried to fill that spot, the original Nature’s NW grocery, so that shows they must be doing something right.

I actually had a decent turnout for this dinner, originally 11, but when Heidi and Hank both got sick the day of the dinner, we went down to the original 8 places I had reserved.  IMG_3204My depended on group of regulars was in attendance, David, Shuhong, Glenda and Cora, plus the occasional Halle family (they might protest, and say they are always the Halle family.) I never know who to expect around the holidays though, after only five at Imperial, so it was a welcome relief to have a table full. It wasn’t the most beautiful of mid-fall evenings, rainy and somewhat cold, and as the Lucca space is your typical storefront type of eatery with two glass doors on the corner, as is the case with many places like this, sitting anywhere in the path of the door draft can be chilly (which brings to mind another Italian dinner, about a year ago, at the now acclaimed Luce, where the opening of the door totally deep freezes the entire small space.) Speaking of chilly, by the way, I arrived about 10 minutes before our reservation, finding Cora, David, and Shuhong already in the bar area. Cora was not the happiest camper, as she said the hostess was pretty rude to her when she had arrived about 25 minutes before the reservation time. Having taken mass transit and knowing no place else to go, as the corner of 24th and Fremont is not exactly the best place to bide your time, as all the surrounding area is residential (oh, but such nice residential!) what was she supposed to do, knock on a neighbor’s door and say “hey, I’m 25 minutes early for my reservation at Lucca, can I use your bathtub?”  Cora said the frosty treatment also extended to David and Shuhong, who arrived next, the implication being “I have no room for you, come back at 7:00” (when our table still wasn’t quite ready.)

I also felt about as appreciated as a leper at the arm wrestling competition (sorry lepers, no offense intended) when I showed up and tried to huddle around David, Shuhong and Cora in the bar area, where they had alighted and were having drinks, all the staff passing around me acting relatively brusque and certainly implying I was in the way at all times. I guess I was supposed to just huddle around the cold door area by myself until our table was ready, about 15 minutes later.

This rather chilly reception aside, the rest of our evening was a pleasant one. People filtered in, and we ordered drinks and such, waiting for Glenda to arrive (she was playing that fun game, “let me see if I can take the wrong bus and still arrive at the restaurant sooner or later.”)IMG_3208 Luckily, she was only about 15 minutes late, the bus line with the 7s in the wrong place not taking her too far afield. As per usual, when she’s had a trying time getting to the dinner, she immediately demanded liquor. Cora and David already had drinks from their shameful exercise of lingering in the bar area, Shouhong was sucking down air, I think Glenda had scotch, and the Halle’s ordered their customary bottle of wine. Barbara Halle ordered a cocktail, the same one I did, but I can’t remember the name, only that it had tequila in it and some fruit liqueur component (raspberry maybe?) Barbara liked her drink, but it wasn’t a favorite of mine, which is why I’m thinking it had raspberry (framboise?) as an ingredient, as I’m not a fan of raspberry, except for good jam.

The decor at Lucca is relatively simple, pleasant, basking in warm tones, but nothing to write home about. In other words, a nice place to take the whole family. They do have an interesting basket weave wooden ceiling though, which looked classy, but seemed to create acoustical issues, as it was loud and hard to hear all night.IMG_3205 Considering I never see anything in print about Lucca, except for maybe an occasional ad, it was remarkably busy, and while it isn’t the biggest space ever, it’s not the smallest either, and it appeared they do a good business (although it’s hard to judge the rest of the week by a Friday night.) Several times I looked over by the door and there were multiple people waiting for tables, up to eight people at a time, and I have a feeling many of those people are regulars. I couldn’t help but wonder if that was why the hostess was less than friendly to us, because we were taking up lots of space that their regular folk might want to use.

The waiter was the opposite of the hostess, really warm and friendly, and we had great service all night. The Halle family even commented after the dinner on how wonderful the waiter had been, as he had brought John some free red wine on the house, as their bottle was empty and John was still eating, but was the only of the three with an empty glass. Hey, free wine refills! You don’t see that too often (at least from people who are planning on staying in business.)

A large oval bowl of bread was brought, with focaccia and what looked like a baguette, and that disappeared in a big hurry, the focaccia having what tasted like bacon grease poured on top. IMG_3207Glenda wondered if more bread would be brought, as she just got there and the bread bowl was empty, and when I asked the waiter if we could have more bread, for Glenda, another brimming bowl appeared. Not to worry, we managed to take care of that as well, by the time we left the restaurant. It’s good this wasn’t The Parish, where the bread costs $1 a slice, or we would have been down about $40 on bread alone.

Here’s what we ordered at Lucca ……..

Classic Caesar  – whole leaf romaine, croutons, parmesan, lemon-anchovy vinaigrette – Both David and I mentioned how anchovy-influenced this Caesar salad was, but not in a bad way, as it gave it a great deal of flavor. It must be that while many people just add a few anchovies, this had lemon-anchovy vinaigrette. I wonder if that means they grind them up somehow, or maybe use anchovy paste.

Apple Salad – Pippin apples, autumn greens, gorgonzola, candied walnuts, fig vinaigrette – I didn’t hear comments, as John had this, but I think Barbara mentioned John liked it.

Grilled Pears, pate and crispy toasted bread – This is not the restaurant’s description of this item, but for some reason I can’t find it on any online menu, maybe it was a short-lived special. Whatever the case, I think it involved more of those Bosc pears. Barbara said the whole thing was wonderful, especially the large portion of the delicious pate (sorry, I don’t know what sort of pate it was,)

Roasted Beet Carpaccio – arugula sylvetta, fennel, celery root, shaved parmesan, crispy capers, truffle vinaigrette – Interesting looking, and Glenda  (and Cora?) both liked it.

Wood-Fired Autumn Vegetables – delicata & acorn squash, cipollini onions, Tuscan kale, bosc pears, sage-hazelnut pesto, pecorino fresco. IMG_3202Melissa was relatively quiet with her food comments too on this Friday, but it was nice that Lucca had something interesting for her to order, as she’s traditionally not big on meat eating. I did notice that she had lots left when she was finished, not too surprising, as it was a healthy sized portion, and she tends to be a lite eater at our dinners (more of a grazer.) I do want to comment, though, on the fact that Lucca had Bosc pears a few places on the menu. Bosc are my favorite pear, the only one I eat raw, but you hardly ever see them used at restaurants (maybe the mild, apple like flavor and the ugly appearance scare people away.)

IMG_3212Linguine – manilla clams, garlic, white wine, chili flakes, garlic bread crumbs – David was really surprised how spicy this was, but he loved it because of that fact. I had a couple of his clams myself, and they were really rich and tasty. David has tried variations on this dish at other restaurants, but this was the one he’s liked the best so far.

IMG_3213Pappardelle – braised rabbit & mushroom sugo, Tuscan kale, parmesan – Cora and Barbara Halle had this, and both thought is was exceptional. Shuhong, who is often disappointed with the lack of really flavorful food at the dinners, had some of Cora’s, and she thought it was totally delicious.

IMG_3216Braised Pork Shoulder – creamy polenta, braised chard, eggplant caponata w. pine nuts & capers, pancetta-sage condimento  – I didn’t hear what John thought of this entree, as he’s basically a come, eat, and leave sort of guy, with not too many comments attached (although he did comment of the waiter bringing the extra wine) but it seemed like he enjoyed this, and was happy with Lucca in general.

IMG_3211Grilled Flat Iron Steak – crispy Yukon potatoes, wood-fired broccoli, roasted garlic butter – Glenda is a decent sized eater for a woman “over 60” and she generally has no problem eating a starter, entree and dessert. This was such a huge portion of meat though, when she was done she said there was enough for a second dinner. Although she enjoyed the steak a lot, she said she would have actually preferred the portion to be smaller, so the price could have been somewhat less ($23 is getting to the upper reaches of what most restaurants charge for flat iron steak, a “lesser” cut.)

IMG_3214Pan-Roasted Rockfish – roasted sunchokes, melted leeks, braised fennel, celery root & kohlrabi puree, Persian cress, lemon-caper butter – Shuhong had this, and liked it better than any of the various fish entrees she’s tried over the months she’s been with our group. That being said, she still placed it as third best  thing at the table this evening, after Cora’s bunny pasta and David’s linguine with clams.

Funghi  Pizza – wood-roasted wild mushrooms, fontina, mozzarella, parmesan, parsley, truffle oil – As Lucca is know for having good wood-fired pizzas, I thought this would be a big draw, but I was the only one who had a pizza (if Heidi and Julian had made it to this dinner as originally planned, I bet one or both of them would have had pizza.) IMG_3215Anyway, as there was lots to select from on the Lucca menu, I guess pizza was too commonplace for everyone else. As a person who doesn’t often get decent pizza though, I forced myself to order one, especially as wood oven crust has always been some of my favorite. I felt like I needed a bit more protein than this pizza offered, so I decided I would add some prosciutto on top. I forgot to see how much it cost though, and I was less than thrilled when the waiter said $4, which brought the price of my individually sized pizza up to $18, a bit high. I know real prosciutto is not cheap, but $4 seems rather steep for a topping add-on. The pizza was decent sized though, so although I ate about four pieces, and passed three around, I still had two to take home for lunch the next day. (as far as cold, leftover pizza goes, the crust was a tad tough.)  The crust was very thin, always my preference, but not hard to chew or crispy (when warm.) The toppings were good, with some of the more mainstream wild mushrooms (I didn’t fear I would be dead the next morning.) Tasty, but not “knock your socks off ” delicious, sort of subtle in flavor. I did like it better than that weird thing I had at Via Tribunali (our last pizza experience) which had an aberrant long rectangular shape that was impossible to eat without trashing the whole thing out.

Dessert Time!!

IMG_3219Tartufo  – gianduja chocolate truffle tart, brandied cherries, candied hazelnuts, cocoa nib whipped crema – This was an unusual looking thing, sort of half black, half white, like one of those ying/yang cookies. The chocolate was very intense, and David, who “doesn’t like dessert” (tee hee) thought it was really good. Naturally Glenda, chocolate maniac, enjoyed her portion as well.

S’mores, spiced graham cracker, toasted marshmallows, dark chocolate – This was interesting, and certainly light years away from anything most people would consider a S’more. IMG_3223It was one of those deconstructed desserts, with fancy little pieces of the components arranged in an artistic way inside the bowl and a drizzling of high quality melted chocolate tying everything together. The graham crackers were crispy and cinnamon laced, and the marshmallows fancy and singed in a appealing fashion. As an interesting side note (hey, interesting to me is better than interesting to no one) I was from a disadvantaged childhood, and I didn’t even know what a S’More was until maybe high school or college. When I was little, my family didn’t go camping or traveling hardly at all, and we didn’t have a fireplace (and no one really had fancy fire pits in those days.) The first time someone mentioned making S’Mores, I had no idea what they were talking about, and thought something was wrong with their tongue.

IMG_3221Budino – huckleberry & marsala-poached pear brown betty: warm bread pudding  w. vanilla custard, huckleberry marmellata, whipped crema – Cora keeps insisting she doesn’t really do dessert, but I would say that at this point she has ordered dessert at the dinners more times than she hasn’t (although sometimes she gets something to taste and share.) Her main criteria, as she keeps mentioning, is not too sweet, so fruity things, especially with berries, seem to suit her palate the best. This reminded me quite a bit of the fruit tart thing she got at Imperial, which she really liked, and she loved the fact that this one had bread pudding on the bottom. She was very happy with everything she had this dinner.

As mentioned before, the waiter was first class (despite committing the one Cardinal Sin in the Glenda Goldwater handbook, being rather touchy. IMG_3209Our ol’ gal doesn’t like being poked, pawed, prodded, or fingered by strangers in any way. It must be an Emily Post rule.) Even the manhandled Glenda enjoyed her whole Lucca experience, and agreed that it seemed to be one of those hidden gems. Hey, don’t these people who manage to live in Alameda already have enough going for them, why do they also get the really good little Italian restaurant that hardly no one knows about all to themselves? The world just isn’t fair.