Ciao Down

A new, family-friendly Italian eatery comes to restaurant-starved Beaumont-Wilshire. Reservations are definitely necessary.

By Camas Davis May 19, 2009 Published in the April 2008 issue of Portland Monthly

I DON’T HAVE KIDS. I don’t live in Beaumont or Alameda or Irvington. And I’m ridiculously picky about the quality of any pasta or pizza that’s set in front of me. Which is why Lucca, a family-friendly neighborhood joint on the corner of NE Fremont and 24th that specializes in classic, rustic Italian cuisine, is not entirely for me. But clearly, I’m in the minority.

Indeed, it was the crowd factor that initially piqued my curiosity about Lucca. In February the restaurant had successfully opened in a more-or-less jinxed business space—most recently it was Aja Pacific Kitchen and before that it was Marco’s—and by March the seats in the capacious dining room were filled virtually every night. So I found myself wondering: What was everyone so excited about?

Surely it wasn’t the quality of the service, I quickly learned. During my first dinner there, which my dining partner and I consumed at the bar, because the waiting list for a table was so long, the bartender decided to bring out two appetizers, a salad and two entrées all at the same time. The array of dishes forced us to take up four seats’ worth of space, and by the time I’d plowed through the starters and prepared to attack my bucatini and meatballs—a long reach across several other plates—it was cold. Not only does timing seem to be a problem at Lucca, but on more than one occasion, I was served the wrong dishes entirely. And once, my waitress walked by our empty plates a good 15 times over the course of 30 minutes before clearing them away.

As for the food, the menu is far from original—which isn’t a bad thing in itself. Until Lucca opened, a serviceable Caesar salad or pasta or pizza was hard to come by in Beaumont-Wilshire, so even such old standards are a welcome addition to the table. Still, it was a tad unfortunate that, during one meal, the lemon-anchovy vinaigrette on the Caesar salad was overpowered by garlic and poured onto the romaine lettuce with a heavy hand. Or that the gratin of Swiss chard that came with my (rather excellent) grilled chicken was undercooked, and the accompanying "campfire" cipollini onions weren’t tender and sweet, but slightly mushy and sour (from what I believe was some sort of balsamic reduction).

Of course, pizza and pasta are good standby staples for picky kids—and picky adults—and to some extent you can’t go wrong with those entrées here, even if they aren’t quite up to my I-heart-New-York-pizza-and-Italian-pasta standards. In fact, even I appreciated the fact that I could order a woodfired mushroom or margherita pizza with an egg cooked on top (an authentic Italian touch I’ve not seen elsewhere in Portland). But still, for me, the pizza was simply too bready.

The pastas, though certainly palatable, were equally disappointing. In general, I like my pastas to transport and comfort me, and these fell far short of the ideal. Take the bucatini and meatballs. The pork, beef and pancetta meatballs were good enough—moist, flavorful, rich—but the strong mushroom flavor of the porcini ragù in which they were cooked was overpowering for my taste. On another night, the ribbons of linguini on my plate struck me as unusually thick, although the simple clam and wine sauce was perfectly executed.

So how does one explain the fact that Lucca is perennially packed with customers? Perhaps it’s the restaurant’s perfect combination of relatively cheap prices (the generously portioned pastas and pizzas hover right around $12, and the most expensive item on the menu is an $18 sirloin steak, a dish that will run you $25 or more elsewhere in town), the kid-friendly atmosphere that still feels moderately mature (with dim lighting, privately spaced tables and quiet music), and a location in which a mere handful of dining establishments compete for throngs of restaurant-hungry residents. But I have a hunch that the food’s real allure is its familiarity. The menu’s safe combination of Italian and classic Californian cuisine is likely what attracts diners here, rather than the quality of the ingredients and the preparations, or the creativity or novelty of the fare.

Despite my reservations, Lucca’s transformation of this formerly hexed space into a vibrant neighborhood Italian eatery is no small feat. And as long as this restaurant keeps serving up its hearty meals of pizza and pasta, the hordes will probably continue to clamor for more.

But as for me, when it comes to the tastes and textures on the table, just a little more fine-tuning would go a long way.