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Crispy snapper, fennel, fava beans and an herb-garlic purée (photo by Beth Furgurson)
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King crab, avocado and citrus salad (photo by Beth Furgurson)
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Interior (photo by Beth Furgurson)
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Buffalo mozzarella with tomato and basil (photo by Beth Furgurson)
At dusk during a full moon, the 100-foot walk to Lucca Enoteca from the Carpenter Theatre is breathtaking. Cherubic shields protruding from the corners of the Italian Renaissance Revival building catch the eye like epaulets. The moon appears to rest on the supports of the relit Berry Burk sign. The skyline is the color of the inside of a conch shell. It’s a view from an era when downtown’s architectural beauty and commerce were in lockstep.
Maria and Michael Oseguera, who also own Maya Mexican Grill in Short Pump, offer more delights within Lucca. But first, a staff member will open the door for you and escort you into the restaurant’s wood-scented gallery. A Negroni seems like just the thing as a young, dread-headed couple push their Mercedes of a baby stroller past the gallery's picture window. Ordered charcuterie arrives, snappy, peppery slices of house-cured salami, and mortadella studded with olives and blue cheese, thick as pâté. The bittersweet, strong drink cleanses the palate of the fatty meats.
A look around the dining room offers more beauty. In the center, there’s a phalanx of booths draped with white tablecloths. The rest of the room is relaxed, naked tables and cords of hickory leaning on the open kitchen and raw bar. Casual diners eat at the cocktail bar kitty-corner. Some are restaurant-industry types, and they order pizza or oysters on the half shell. I can’t blame them. There are oysters from two coasts to try: cucumber-y Kumamoto from the West and briny Malpaques from the East.
Pizza has been inconsistent, but I still like it very much. The 1,000-degree, coal-fired oven is unforgiving, hardening edges to carbonate if not careful; I haven’t been served anything close to inedible, but I have been served overcooked. And overtopped, an avalanche of capers running off. This isn’t Neapolitan-style, so it folds in half nicely like a good New York slice, only smaller and thicker. One thing I love about the pizza here is how the prosciutto is applied, pressed unheated onto the pie after it comes out of the oven, the meat pliant, fat intact.
There are plates that make me tingle with the prospect of receiving them. One is seasonal vegetables in anchovy butter, carrots thin as straws, with licorice-scented fennel, and sweet radishes that taste of white pepper dulled by warmed, buttery fish oil. Another is the octopus-and-potato salad with room-temperature tentacles just touched by char.
Dining cognoscenti will recognize chef Andrew Manning from Longoven pop-ups, and if they think far back, from Sweetwater or Helen’s. Bill Foster is here, too — responsible for the charcuterie boards — and he brought in a waiter he worked with at Acacia Mid-town, upping the service.
An aberration that chaps me is the crudo. In four visits, I’ve never tried it, though it’s printed on the menu as dressed with oil, salt and herbs. My server tells me they only have it about 50 percent of the time because the fish doesn’t meet the chef’s standards for serving raw. Why, then, do they bother to permanently list it? Seafood main courses have been noteworthy. Hopefully, one day, there’ll be crudo that matches the clean flavors of the black sea bass under crisped skin.
The food and wine menus tour Italy, but they also run by Greece, southwestern France and, briefly, Spain and Portugal. They include veal chops Provençal, and one night, razor clams with diced eggplant. Cephalopods particularly shine, like the squid with chickpea salad. There’s pasta, too: bucatini with uni butter and maitake reeking of sweet, fresh, upturned earth, the noodles pushing through mushrooms to parsley grass. Fantastic, though mine was cooked a cat’s eyelash away from al dente. The beautiful plating reminds me of Maestro, an old favorite in Tysons Corner, or a swanky Piedmontese ristorante. It’s fairytale-like rather than rustic. And there’s one final dreamy quality about Lucca: At 8:30 on a weeknight, the place is empty. Pinch Me.
3.25 out of 4 forks
525 E. Grace St., 447-5410
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday;
11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday; and 4 to 11 p.m. Saturday
Prices: $6 to $40