Finally. Cleveland's skyline has been waiting for a restaurant like Luca Italian Cuisine — a place with the food and service to match the city's classic architecture and rustic good looks.
In the space formerly occupied by Ponte Vecchio and Viaduct Lounge, the 10-month-old Luca inhabits the top floor of a building that reaches five stories below the old Superior Viaduct. So, yes, it has some advantages: large windows frame the purple-hued bridges, colorful luminescence of the Terminal Tower and a twinkling skyline close enough to hold in two hands.
That's what Luca and Lola Sema saw when they ate at Ponte Vecchio the first week it opened back in 2004. "I remember thinking, Wow, what a beautiful spot," says Luca.
After Ponte Vecchio closed in 2011, followed by the short-lived Viaduct Lounge, the place became theirs. Luca serves as chef and Lola as hostess, general manager and resident wine expert. "This is a dream come true for us," he admits, "something we've wanted for a long time."
The Semas spent 2 1/2 months refurbishing the dining room, keeping the original exposed brick walls, pink-hued granite tabletops and bar but adding new lighting, reupholstered booths, large works of art and refreshed woodwork.
Yet, the surroundings, as lush as they are, serve merely as the delicious first course.
The concept — contemporary northern Italian food served in a fine dining style — has been taking shape since Luca left Albania, where he learned to cook as a 19-year-old while doing his mandatory military service. He and Lola, both from the town of Shkodra near the border with the former Yugoslavia, were teenage sweethearts. Her family moved to Italy. He followed her there after the army and began earning a living by making pizza and pasta. He came to America in 1998, joining his brother in Cleveland, and Lola soon reunited with him here.
Luca has slowly made his way up the culinary ladder, working in some of this city's most well-regarded Italian kitchens, including Valerio's Ristorante, Osteria di Valerio & Al and Michaelangelo's.
A server at Morton's the Steakhouse before the couple made the move to their own place, Lola studied wine in her spare time and earned a third-level advanced certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers.
If this is their dream, they don't sleep on a single detail.
She's chosen every bottle of red, white and bubbly on the list for its food friendliness and affordability. Even pricey labels are minimally marked up.
His sauces are slow-cooked for around five hours, with dressings and desserts made from scratch. Luca sets out good green extra-virgin olive oil for dipping, drizzles plates with imported, aged balsamic and garnishes squares of his decadent tiramisu with lovely edible orchids ($10).
The Bolognese that tops the pappardelle ($25) requires beef tips, wild boar, veal, duck, four varieties of tomatoes and a generous pour of cabernet.
He's even lavish with truffles, one of the 10 most expensive foods in the world, using fresh when available and jarred when not. The unique aroma and earthy flavor of the fungus gets star billing in the sacchetti ($28), round little pasta sacks in rich white truffle cream. As one of most popular things on the menu, it's a dish you just want to devour.
The backbone of the menu is classic with bufala mozzarella, cavatelli, gnocchi and osso buco. But don't mistake the familiarity for unexceptional.
The saltimbocca di vitello ($32) is a timeless preparation that gets its due here. Veal medallions are pounded thin, topped with prosciutto and sage, and cooked with white wine, lemon and citrus zest.
The artichoke appetizer, carciofi al aragosta ($14), is also out of the ordinary. The marinated heart is cored, stuffed with lobster meat and mascarpone cheese, lightly breaded and deep fried. Presented with a puddle of red sauce and swirls of green basil oil, the result has both eye appeal and great flavor.
If you adore calamari ($12), you'll want to try it here. But read the description carefully: It's not breaded or cooked in a deep fryer. In Luca's slightly spiced and delicious version, the tender squid is lightly sauteed with white wine and cherry tomatoes.
Likewise, a simple spinach salad ($9) becomes memorable thanks to Luca's vinaigrette, a combination of extra-virgin olive oil, white balsamic, garlic, parsley and crisped pancetta whirled together in a processor.
For a truly swank and very European tableside experience, order the branzino ($25). The crisp-skinned, pan-seared fish arrives whole with the head on. Lola, or one of the servers she's trained, expertly removes it and plates the fillets for you, spooning the buttery, briny sauce over the flaky white flesh. The procedure hearkens back to the days when waiting tables was a profession with a skill set all its own. It was fun to watch, but the fish itself in its bath of capers, garlic, prosecco and lemon was even more enjoyable.
That's Luca, the restaurant, in a single dish. The glamour and flair are built in, but the Semas know what to do with it, creating a restaurant with food, drink and service that's as classy as the setting.
"We want you to pay attention to the food, the view and the atmosphere," says Luca. "And to the person you're with," adds Lola. "That's what fine dining is all about."
Don't let that fine dining label put you off, though. The quality and care the Semas invest in what they're doing doesn't mean Luca is formal or fancy. And don't wait for a special occasion to visit. Instead, think of it this way: a meal here makes any night special.
TRY THIS: Piato Di Mare ($24), a bowl of shrimp, lobster and other shellfish in a zesty tomato sauce seasoned with roasted garlic and crushed red pepper flakes. GOOD TO KNOW: On a warm night, the covered patio, decorated with pots of red roses, is as pretty and romantic a dining spot as you'll find in this town, reminiscent of alfresco seating in the cafes of Rome and Florence.
WHEN YOU GO: Luca Italian Cuisine 2100 Superior Viaduct, Cleveland, 216-862-2761, lucacleveland.com, Mon-Wed 5-10 p.m., Thu-Sat 5-11 p.m., Sun 5-9 p.m.
12:00 AM EST
April 18, 2014