Thursday, May 20, 2010

Lucca Back Bay a Hit-or-Miss Dining Spot

When owners Ted Kennedy, and Matthew and Sean Williams’s decided to expand its North End’s dining hotspot Lucca into the Back Bay last year, Sasso came to be. Evidently, the fancy name didn’t take, as the restaurant is now simply called Lucca Back Bay. Neither did the original chef, David Ross, who was replaced by formidable chef Anthony Mazzotta, he of nationally renowned restaurants of which you may have heard (California’s French Laundry and New York’s Per Se). And yet, when it comes to local publicity of its finest Italian restaurants, Lucca Back Bay is almost always excluded from the conversation. Paul’s Palate trekked over to the Huntington Avenue location (lodged between the Colonnade and Marriott Copley Hotels) to investigate why.

Lucca Back Bay aims high for ambience, and mostly hits its mark. A snazzy little bar with some tables for nibbling on bar bites appears to the left, while an elegant, modern dining room, painted in warm brown hues and providing some great street-viewing outside, is to our right. A long marble staircase leading up to the kitchen, however, seems strangely askew. In fact, after awkwardly attempting to find my way to the rest rooms, whose entranceway was initially pitch black, the deeply embarrassed maitre’d apologized for some of his servers who apparently had bumped into switches upstairs connected to this area on multiple occasions. Though the establishment boasts an impressive décor, minute details such as these prevent Lucca from taking its rightful place atop the classy scale – a la Mistral or Sorrelina.

Mazzotta’s menu changes seasonally, depending on what Italian regional fare tickles his fancy. And like Lucca’s ambience, his food options are typically on the mark. For starters, though, the vitello tonnato ($16) is an utter disappointment. The thinly sliced veal carpaccio is barely discernible, as is the bland tuna tartare, which is rolled into unappealing ball-like shapes. The accoutrements sound enticing – grain mustard remoulade, tiny croutons, pickled ramps, cucumber, radish, and watercress – but they add very little flavor or texture to the dish. On the other hand, Mazzato’s Point Judith calamari ($13) are nothing short of sensational, creatively sauteed with a delectable agro dolce tomato sauce and eggplant. Pasta dishes are Mazzotta’s forte, as evidenced by his superb house-made tagliatelle con pollo ($22), whose blend of perfectly cooked pasta, confit chicken, panecetta, preserved lemon, watercress, and toasted pistachios elevates this bright, lively dish into the canon of all-time great pastas. Four thick, moist seared George Bank scallops ($36) adorn my wife’s dish, but aside from a delicious garnish of turnip puree, sautéed spinich, and confit lobster mushrooms almost hiding underneath the seafood, the plate is practically bare, nary an accompaniment to be had. It were as if we were re-living the commercial in which the couple goes out to a fine dining establishment only to discover miniscule, bordering on pretentious food portion sizes. My wife leans over, secretly pointing to her dish, and whispers, “Is that all there is?” Surely, this cannot happen at a place like Lucca, can it?

Save for a missed water glass, service was consistent and amiable. Our waiter was pleasant and quite knowledgeable of the restaurant’s wine and food selections.

As evidenced by its ambience, service, and food, Lucca Back Bay, like a good-but-not-great baseball player, frequently swings for the fences but more often settles for ground-rule doubles. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but in today’s competitive culinary world and challenging economic climate – where repeat business is critical - perfection is everything. Given Luccca’s moderately high price points ($13 cocktails, $11-16 antipasti, $22-24 pasta dishes, $26-36 entrees, $10 desserts), expectations need to be tempered here. Musician Suzanne Vega once sang about a character named Luka living on the second floor. This particular Lucca yearns for the penthouse, but like the central figure in Vega’s song, delivers above average, but slightly pedestrian results.

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