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.)
Anna Smith has been working on the list for Luci since 1989, when she graduated from the University of St. Thomas. First, she says, she was working mostly to please people who knew more than she did, "namely my dad--he's truly an expert; not only does he have tremendous experience, he has a natural feel for [wine]." After a decade of tasting and traveling, she's enthusiastic about the untapped possibilities of Italian wines, which make up about 65 percent of her list: "There are 150 grape varietals that no one knows anything about," she enthuses.
Indeed, the list features a couple of varieties that sent me scurrying for my reference books, like Vernaccia di San Gimignano, a white wine grown since the 13th century near the Etruscan strongholds that top the hills southwest of Florence. Red wines from Carmignano, a wine region in Tuscany, have been made since the 1700s. Wine folk take note: I never thought I'd see those red sisters from southern Tuscany, Rosso di Montalcino and the bolder, more costly Brunello di Montalcino, in a restaurant where one can eat dinner for $8.
At the same time, the house pours are a model of smart economy: All of the dozen are cheap, easy picks (glasses from $3.25 to $5.95, bottles from $13.95 for nonalcoholic white to $27.50 for the most expensive red) and every one a good food complement. My favorite ended up being the 1995 Avignonesi Sangiovese ($4.95 glass, $24.95 bottle), because the balanced aroma worked well with food swiped from other people's plates. Unfortunately most of the servers seem unfamiliar with all but the house-pour portion of the wine list, so you might want to dork it up and pack a wine guide. Or, for the adventurous, a Ouija-board pointer? A lucky coin?
The lack of fanfare about the wine list is wholly consistent with the Smiths' tendencies away from any form of glitz. The storefront of Ristorante Luci is modest, and one enters to find a fluorescent-lit refrigerator case and a bunch of coat pegs. Are the proprietors assuming that diners will be too enraptured with their plate and glass to notice the dingy carpet, the worn church-basement chairs, or the tag-sale wall art? Perhaps--but maybe it's not just grub and tipple that keeps the diners so enamored. Lucille Smith says the family briefly considered closing the original Ristorante Luci, opened in 1989, when they opened Luci Ancora in 1996, but "there would be such an uproar, I can't even imagine. You wouldn't believe how many engagements took place in that restaurant."
After a pause, Lucille adds: "You know, this all kind of started out as a hobby. We just thought we'd see a lot of our friends." Al finishes her thought: "But it kind of turned out to be a business." I ask the two whether they planned their family the same way--whether they started with a couple of kids, and ended up with an Epicurean dynasty. They just chuckle.
SHAPELY SHEEP ALERT: Frankenstein's farmers are at it again. According to London's Daily Telegraph, English researchers last year had to give up breeding sheep for the expression of the "Callipyge gene"--it means "beautiful buttocks" in Greek--because the ovines' meat was inedibly tough. I'd have liked to see some of those sheep, since Jenny Anderson, a sheep scientist with the British Meat and Livestock Commission, was quoted as saying that "sheep with this particular gene have really impressive bottoms. In terms of muscle they look like Arnold Schwarzenegger compared with other sheep." In other news, the Edinburgh-based Roslin Institute, the research conglomerate that brought you Dolly the cloned sheep, has applied for a license to raise a flock of sheep with human genes in New Zealand; they will produce milk that contains a protein known as human alpha-1-antitrypsin, or hAAT. This human protein might be useful in treating emphysema and cystic fibrosis.
Now, aren't you pleased? I've given you all the information you need to write the camp-horror classic of 2003. Come on, people! Take any standard sheep joke, add shapely buttocks and human proteins--do you need me to connect the dots? Sheesh. Now quit gawking and get cracking.
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