The Nonpassion of the Luce
One way to describe Luce, a recent arrival to downtown Hollywood, is to say that it is an attractive new bar that serves decent brick-oven pizza and better-than-average Italian-style bar food. Another description would be: a poorer-than-average Italian restaurant with a bar. In either case, Luce (pronounced "LOO-che") serves as a dressed-down alternative to Fulvio 1900, the more established eatery also owned by Fulvio and Carmen Stratelli and located nearby on Harrison Street. If the restaurants had been next door to each other, they might've been able to get away with sharing one kitchen and passing some of Fulvio's goods to Luce. As it is, I don't see why Luce waiters can't walk over to Fulvio and pick up some crusty Italian bread so they don't have to serve their own soft buns, which are reminiscent of bake-it-yourself popover dough. It's true that Luce charges less than Fulvio, but need it underline this by making its menu so clearly inferior?
Chicken wings, for instance, are listed as a starter alongside clams oreganata, which somehow has the effect of lowering clam expectations rather than raising those for the wings. In fact, the clams oreganata, eight tough, tiny, but tasty littlenecks baked with oregano-laced bread crumbs, come by way of the old Fulvio's in Davie -- the Stratellis are veteran restaurateurs, as is Luce's chef, Walter Lucchi, former owner of Pappagallo and Walter's Café in North Miami. Eggplant rollatini is another favorite brought over from Davie; it includes a pair of squash-and-mozzarella cheese bundles bathed in light tomato sauce. It wasn't bad, and neither was the soup of the day, a thin but flavorful lentil.
Brick-oven pizzas present the most satisfying appetizer option. Diners are able to accessorize their pie via a choice of 15 toppings that range from prosciutto to pepperoni. Our pizza of fresh mozzarella, tomato slices, and basil leaves boasted a thin crust, well-blistered and crisped.
Luce is a starkly handsome, 100-seat space -- the industrial black ceiling and gray cement floor are warmed by illuminated bamboo trees (not real), shiny mahogany tabletops, and, toward the rear, a brick oven with roaring flames. A long, stainless-steel bar with marble countertop runs up the east side of the room, two television screens above it silently beaming sports. At least they seemed silent, though this might be due to the obfuscating effects of annoying, club-like thumps emanating from the restaurant speakers -- or should I say bar speakers?
Individual waiters' skills determine the level of service. On one occasion, our server was amiable and on the ball; another time, a different waiter was amiable but clueless, not paying attention to our table, not knowing who ordered what, and, to add injury to insult, accidentally elbowing my dining companion's head with such force that had he been wearing a hat, it would have landed on the next table. This waiter also tossed out our leftovers, which we had asked him to pack up to go.
I have no quibbles with Luce's menu concept: A concise compilation of basic fare is a smart means of keeping products fresh, and Italian cooking is most sublime when simple. Still, entrée selections here are so limited and lackluster that one can only surmise that this menu was written in less time than it takes to make a cup of cappuccino. Excepting pastas, the options are: sausage and peppers; salmon with white wine and garlic; eggplant, shrimp, or chicken parmigiana; chicken cacciatore; and chicken breast francese or marsala. Specials featured trout prepared three different ways.
The salmon had mixed results. Though billed as being cooked with white wine and garlic and accompanied by penne marinara, it was prepared piccata style, with lemon and capers, and served over linguini. The pasta was firm and paired well with the seafood-based piccata sauce (not dissimilar to linguini and clam sauce). The salmon, deftly grilled to a coral-pink semitranslucency, had a stiffness of bite indicative of its being frozen, not fresh.
Like so much of Luce's cuisine, chicken cacciatore was passable but lacking in passion and finesse. Portion size, on the other hand, wasn't a problem, the cacciatore was composed of two big breasts on the bone, along with two meaty thighs, all cooked in a wine-tinged sauté of tomatoes, onions, and red peppers -- there wasn't enough liquid to be properly called a sauce. The bird was relatively moist, the flavor pleasing, the plate supplemented with penne marinara squished by the weighty wedges of poultry. For a $2.50 surcharge, you can add a freshly composed house salad to any main course.
Larger entrée salads include caprese, with fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, and "pesto balsamic" dressing; and Tuscan salad with big butter beans, "white" tuna (chunky, not solid), red onions, tomato wedges, field greens, and a tinny-tasting lemon vinaigrette on the side. Apparently, there aren't many worthwhile salads to be found in Italy, as Luce pads its list with Greek and caesar salads and seared ahi tuna with Chinese noodles and Asian ginger dressing. I'm not sure whether it serves sake, but there are more than a dozen wines available by the glass, and a small selection of bottles as well.
Cooks in Italy get fantastic results by just tossing in a few ingredients because the quality of these raw materials is unquestionable, their preparation faultless. Stout semolina pasta; fruity virgin olive oil; sweet, fully ripened tomatoes; and fragrant basil make for a delectable meal. Luce's dry lasagna with flat noodles, chopped beef, mozzarella cheese, and a lightly creamed, heavily salted tomato sauce made for a gastronomic disaster. Perhaps if they'd have used ricotta cheese, the dish might have exhibited some of the bubbly wetness of a successful rendition; this tasted like institutional lasagna on a day when the institution's cook is out.
A trio of pasta shells plumped with ricotta and minuscule amounts of spinach were topped with the same middling tomato sauce that covered the eggplant rollatini -- better than the lasagna, but these tasted like shells purchased in the freezer section of a supermarket. Other pastas on hand are manicotti, baked ziti with eggplant, and spaghetti with meatballs, this last dish the most gratifying by far, the noodles firm, the tomato sauce thick and vibrant, the meatballs bready but soft and well-seasoned.
Desserts run the gamut from a to c: a) tiramisu -- fresh and delicious; b) cheesecake -- Italian style, with slight refrigerator taste; c) gelato -- a perfect finishing note, the ice creams showcased in their glorious pastel colors, just like at a gelatería.
Luce uses the same menu day and night, so subs and pressed panini sandwiches are available at dinnertime. The "house special" panini is an Italian deli unto itself, layered with sopressata, prosciutto, mortadella, capicolla, ham, and provolone. Luce is at its best when you're seated at the bar with one of these sandwiches (or a pizza), and a tall, frosty glass of draft beer (Moretti, Sierra Nevada, Grolsch), your attention tuned to one of the quiet but colorful TV screens. This is, after all, an attractive new bar that serves decent brick-oven pizza and better-than-average Italian-style bar food.
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