Family Planning

Ristorante Luci
470 S. Cleveland Ave., St. Paul; (651) 699-8258
Hours: Tuesday through Thursday 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Sunday 4:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.; closed Mondays

Scratch an empire and find a family, even if the empire is smallish and pasta-based, even if the family isn't of the fashionably dysfunctional variety. Consider the sister Luci restaurants, those powerhouses of Italian dining near the intersection of Randolph and Cleveland in St. Paul, where the Mac-Groveland and Highland Park neighborhoods meet. Both are the brainchildren of Al and Lucille Smith, Minnesotans who spent many years living in Italy, and both are run by Al and Lucille's actual children.

The youngest Smith, Daniela, helms the cramped kitchen of Ristorante Luci--a small, warm, predominantly Southern Italian restaurant. Across the street, her brother Stephen runs Luci Ancora, a modern, bustling, drafty, and predominantly Northern Italian restaurant. Al and Lucille Smith don't pick favorites--in restaurants or kids--though they're well aware of the inherent rivalry. "Oh, there's competition all right," laughs Al. "But it's a healthy competition, I think, and I'm not doing anything to discourage that."

But if Al and Lucille refuse to take sides, the rest of us still can. I prefer Ristorante Luci because it's quieter, more consistent, and less expensive, and I think the food is better. Still, now that I know about the sibling rivalry, doubts start to creep in: Am I operating from a subtle set of heretofore unrecognized gender biases? I always did like Janet Jackson more than Michael, Cindy Brady more than Bobby. But wait, I like Donnie Osmond more than Marie. Oops, but I like Karen Carpenter better than whatsisname, wait, that doesn't count, everybody likes Karen Carpenter better. Ack. I think the best plan is to go into therapy to address my sibling issues, and hold off on reviewing Luci Ancora.

Back to Ristorante Luci: One of the things I really do admire is the high level of control a chef can exercise in a smaller restaurant where every plate gets closely examined before it leaves the kitchen. Daniela Smith's cooking is distinguished by an ability to keep ingredients and flavors focused--there is no muddy wishy-washy here. Fresh mozzarella is made on-site, many of the pastas are handmade, herbs are hand-torn.

My favorite Luci dish showcases this combination of good ingredients and tight control over the plate. It's an appetizer, the melanazane alla saltimbocca ($5.95)--thin slices of seared eggplant covered with prosciutto, topped with salty fontina cheese, all vibrating with good olive oil and crowned by sweet dice of fresh tomatoes in a sage sauce. Saltimbocca means "jump into the mouth," and the smooth cheese with the edge of sharpness and herbal perfume, the silky eggplant, and the tangy salt and savor of the prosciutto work together to--as advertised--get your fork fervently jumping toward your mouth.

Another appetizer that doesn't pull any punches is a pizza ($7.25) heaped with chunks of grilled portobello mushrooms, pears, and peppery Gorgonzola cheese. The potent ingredients don't overpower the crisp, thin crust beneath--in fact the toasty edge gives a nice bottom of flavor to the jazz on top. Pastas like the taglierini ai funghi ($7.75)--house-made, long, thin, egg noodles drenched in a rich, buttery sauce made of mushrooms and fresh sage--are winter-hearty and rib-sticking, each mouthful as tasty as cheesecake.

Perhaps what surprised me most about Ristorante Luci was what a bargain it can be: The generous pasta courses, or primi, come with a hearty basket of house-baked bread and a choice of the day's soup or salad--a spicy Caesar made with a good, piquant olive oil or a bowl of mixed baby lettuce dressed with peppery balsamic vinegar. Each of the nine pastas on the menu is under $10, so you do the math--it's cheap-date paradise. The linguini with grilled black tiger shrimp in a hot, sweet sauce of butternut squash puree and red onions with a hint of chilies ($9.95) are generous with the costly crustaceans and interesting from first bite to last--I've often paid twice as much for dishes half as good.

The entrees, or secondi, I tried were just as accomplished: A grilled plate of pork tenderloin ($13.50) ringed with roasted red peppers, sweet yellow raisins, and pine nuts in a veal stock was tender and perfectly cooked, the arrangement allowing for a different composition to each bite, so that the flavors were all highlighted in turn.

Interestingly, the most expensive thing on the menu--a grilled beef tenderloin served with a rich porcini mushroom sauce ($19.95) and a creamy risotto--was professionally proficient but seemed, like the couple of nonalcoholic wines on the wine list, to be more about satisfying certain diners' needs than a real labor of love. Ristorante Luci's real love is in the simpler, ingredient-showcasing dishes, and in the traditional wine. The restaurant's 200-plus bottle list is the work of Anna Smith--number five in Al and Lucille's family of culinary siblings. (Keeping count? OK: Daughter Maria works behind the scenes in the Luci offices, and son Paul works for the D'Amico empire as chief financial officer. Only one daughter, Lucia, got away--she lives in New York.)

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