The secret? There are many. But it starts with the décor.
Walk in downstairs, pass through the lightly lit, slim bar area, head up the stairwell and enter a cavernous space out of another world. We’re not talking strobe lights and Saturday Night Fever-era disco balls. Here the vibe is 1920s, speakeasy-era New York, all with an Italian edge — a pleasant distraction from the reality of the streets outside. So well has the dark brown, cream and maroon interior been executed, that at any moment you expect Al Capone to walk through the door. Not that he will, of course. Although Godfather author Mario Puzo may have felt at home here.
Based on the well-known, New York French-Italian eatery Balthazar — the brains behind Lucca is the brother of the famous Stateside restaurateur — what Lucca has in abundance is space. Space not just for the décor — here the walls sport almost full-length mirrors, musically influenced murals and some of the most visually attractive period floor tiles in the city. But space also to play with the menu. Stretching from quick-and-easy bistro fare such as pizza, pasta and American-Italian mains to a more complex specials menu, the team of restaurant manager Matteo and chef Alessandro are mixing traditional Italian fare with modern New York influences. It works a treat.
Wined and Dined
On my visit I was pushed away from the American influences of the bistro menu and directed straight to the specials, a chance for the chef to really push the Italian in him. The tuna salad (VND190,000) was a concoction of perfectly seared tuna set on a bed of mixed salad with fresh tomato, olives, orange and a balsamic vinegar reduction. Light and delicate, mixing subtle flavours to create an easy-on-the-stomach starter, this is a great way to commence any meal.
The linguine porcini, asparagus and Serrano ham (VND220,000) was equally enticing. Piled up in a mound with Parmesan flakes on the side, this dish is as much about texture as it is about richness of taste. The asparagus provides the crispiness, the Serrano and porcini the softness and salt, while the al dente linguine middles off the two extremes. A moreish dish. And unlike so many other pasta options in this city, anything but heavy.
I then tried the seabass cartoccio with basil sauce and roasted tomatoes (VND320,000). Baked in aluminium foil, the fish is tender — so soft, says Matteo, that he even had a customer complaining that the fish was cooked from frozen. It wasn’t — the sea bass is fresh. With salad on the side, once again, this was a light-on-the-palate affair, with heartiness provided by the sautéed baby potatoes. A dish that has summertime Mediterranean written all over it.
Hitting the specials was an alternate experience to all the others I’ve had at Lucca. I’ve mainly found myself delving into the more American-influenced fare. But it was equally pleasant, if not more so. And it adds an extra dimension to a restaurant that has already surpassed more than the standard three. — Nick Ross