I knew a Luca once, though unlike Frank Bonanno’s scion, the name was spelled with not 1 c to mean (per About.com) a citizen of ancient Lucania but 2, after the famed medieval Tuscan town Lucca—casa to Italy’s hence world’s best focaccia.
Lucca was the nephew of an old flame, the one I gobbled focaccia thereabouts with, & the yummiest little cherub ever. His response to forkfuls of cheesecake proffered repeatedly from across the room was Pavlovian clockwork—he’d toddle in his diapers faster & faster, over & over, his eyes hypnosis spirals—& his habit of dunking hot dogs into the birdbath before sucking them down made him the unwitting life of every family barbecue. As an infant, he would gum anything, just anything—wrists, book spines, table edges—calmly, eyes skyward.
It was in the pure preverbal solemnity of his gourmandise that I took such joy.
I thought of him—who must by now be nearly 10—for the 1st time in years the other night at Luca d’Italia, where I’d have wordlessly followed every last bite around the room in my underpants too.
As it happened, the first bite pretty much backed up into me; the very moment we were seated amid what seems to define hushed elegance here in the West—white linens against desert-in-sunset hues—our server descended with amuses bouches. The abruptness of the gesture—we’d yet to even open the wine list—grated on me a touch, though it has since occurred to me wonder a) when I became so jaded that I could criticize the timing of free snacks & b) whether it wasn’t a fair attempt to preempt the mini-nervous breakdowns many of us suffer in the interval between our arrival on unfamiliar dining turf & the acknowledgment of our presence by those whose grasp of the terrain & its resources is precisely what we’ve come to acquire. I’m sure Steve Dublanica or somebody has already sufficiently articulated the evolutionary psychology underpinning service-customer relations.*
At any rate, like Dudley Moore taking the money at the end of Arthur, I hardly waved away the pork liver pâté on a semolina crostino with cherry preserves, stone-ground mustard & pickled onions,
& though it didn’t fully come together for me—there seeming to be an awful lot of strong condiment & diversional toast crunch relative to the amount of really rather delicate pâté—I had to applaud the aplomb whereby it was not only produced but followed by a delectable bread basket (mmm, loved me those snappy herb-flecked breadsticks) complete with prosciutto bianco, a euphemism for lardo. The nonchalance with which Italians tend to treat the odds of there being any dietary prohibition other than their own never ceases to win me over. In the words of the aforementioned ex after I berated him for adding pancetta to a pasta sauce we were preparing to serve to vegetarian friends one evening: “This isn’t meat, it’s flavoring.”
Thus was a flavoring vinaigrette the salty-smoky counterpoint to—if not the whole point of—dulcet grilled octopus & melon, adding the shadowy contours to their light bright flesh.
Meanwhile, true to the standard, my braised polpette housed a pulverized menagerie of calf & cow as well as pig. Soaking up a deeply caramelized onion & tomato gravy as heady as mead, they went down without a hitch, meat made velvet.
The benefit of the douse did not, however, go likewise to the panzanella, whose dressing should be like a good spa treatment: while the blend of herbed olive oil & red wine vinegar is no jacuzzi you can just leave the grilled bread cubes alone to get funky in, it most certainly is a massage lotion with which you must rub them down until it gently penetrates their pores. They shouldn’t be soggy, in short, but neither should they be dry—then they’re just croutons.
Thus disappointed did I, like the littlest rascal jumping to peep over the fence where the big kids converge upon the treehouse, try to swipe bites of both my dad’s lamb—squirtingly tender down to the last bone-clinging shred—
& the Director’s exquisite rabbit three ways.
Though I’ll be darned if I caught a whiff of the white truffle supposedly in the sauce (& I’m quite the fungus-rooting swine), I nonetheless loved its savor, winey & cacciatorelike, helping slow the bunny meat’s generally fleeting earthiness to a pace we could follow, swallow after swallow—that is, until it finally brought us to a shuddering, groaning standstill.
Until until 2 days hence, when we started all over again at Osteria Marco, whose quasi-speakeasy vibe makes you wish there was a government ban on deli products & you could only gain entry by hissing open sesame in a tough’s ear. Here, too, was pancetta worth its salt—rallying round roast chicken, avocado, blue cheese, crisp lettuce & creamy garlic dressing until they all made 1 big zesty team huddle of a chopped salad.
By contrast, if ever a meat product were a delicate flower, it’s braesola; just budding when served alone, it opens up to fullest bloom amid ripe fig slivers & a drizzle of saba (aka vin cotto, a shade more syrupy than high-grade balsamic). Wanting to focus on the subtle gradations of all that dusky, musky rosiness, I found the gorgonzola chunks less offsetting than distracting, just so many bees buzzing around the garden.
Speaking of distractions: when I was but a tot, my dad used to tease me by making me look—pointing wide-eyed out the window or up at the ceiling only to nick a peanut or grape from the bowl before me. I suspect the grilled ciabatta he ordered served the same purpose. Thinned with enough olive oil to reach dipping consistency, yet still plenty thick with parmesan, the sundried tomato–speckled pesto it came with mesmerized me no less than that cheesecake did Lucca,
& it wasn’t until I’d nearly licked the dish clean that I realized his salad with shaved lamb & goat cheese, roasted peppers & Kalamatas was all gone—that he’d not left me, his own flesh & blood, a crumb.
Now that’s what I call buonanno.
*In my defense, in a thread I started in hopes of resolving my ambivalence toward this very subject on Chowhound’s Not About Food board, 1 adamant poster equated ill-timed amuses bouches with “popups on the computer screen.”