BON APPÉTIT Restaurant Editor Andrew Knowlton named Luce the number-four most important new restaurant in America, and overnight the quiet little corner café no one seemed to know about was mobbed. (Check out our review from last year, "Let There Be Luce," Dec 1, 2011.) People who had to look up East Burnside on a map ("It's by Idaho, Susan, and the skiing is terrible") rolled down from the West Hills, across the bridge, and into the Buckman neighborhood, hungry for the newest place to flaunt their Coach handbags and practice giving women their Pierce Brosnan eyes. It was a mathematical—and undoubtedly brief—first response to a restaurant whose lovely soul has accidentally made it fashionable.
Knowlton's stated criteria were, in sum, a return to simplicity in dining out. It suits the economy: We have less money to spend on restaurants. It suits culinary trends: We have weathered a decade of steadily complicated food and want something familiar. It suits occupational fatigue: A guy who eats out at such an accelerated pace just wants a home-cooked meal. We go through regular gastronomic cycles of dark ages and enlightenment, and at this juncture Knowlton's well-informed prescription is for the pleasures of good, affordable food made by people you know—sans fuss and theater. It's a timely message well received by a town whose every neighbor is curing jowl, bemoaning the blip of morel season, or chopping the heads and tails off a hot pot of basement hooch.
On my first visit, Luce was a steadily unfolding, charming surprise, until it was a joy. The small restaurant is shoehorned into its space, but comfortable, with wooden tabletops and scarred, checkered flooring, tall cabinets of dried pasta, cases of cold antipasti, and baskets of tasteful sundries. It has the apparent service level of a friendly coffee shop, but the deep menu of a café you dreamt about after falling asleep between repeats of Jacques Pépin and Lidia Bastianich.
A large menu of $2 antipasti creates a low-risk sandbox for experimentation. Though the staff humbly describes the small portions as "heaping tablespoons," they are generally at least twice that, and enough for two people to get the idea before moving on. A few arancini, textbook-perfect fried saffron risotto dumplings, should be on your plate, as should a wedge of the tender farro-and-parmigiano pie, as both showcase simplicity and quality ingredients. Crisp, blanched green beans in a wrap of domestic prosciutto are served just warm, a nice twist on this typically cold appetizer, and the broccoli with garlic and anchovy is carefully enhanced by the oily fish without being fishy.
After these little introductions are a selection of fresh, house-made pastas offered in two sizes, the smaller of which is designed to be ordered if tasting a few other items. The tagliatelle with beef and pork ragu ($7/half, $14/whole) is thin and eggy, as perfectly prepared as it is done anywhere, delicately presented with a rich crumble of meat and feathery dusting of parmigiano. The ragu is deep and sophisticated, the tomato cooked dark to complement the caramelized meats. The garganelli ($9/half, $18/whole), essentially a textured penne, is served in a shallow broth with chopped and browned bits of rabbit and fresh peas. The simple liquor is deeply satisfying, tasting intensely of mirepoix and rabbit juices, and the dish feels light and elegant. A shrimp and squash blossom farfalle with saffron, and a linguine with a light, creamy avocado-and-nut pesto are both so straightforward and perfect that it makes one wonder why it's so hard to find such good pasta anywhere, since it seems so effortlessly achieved here.
A daily updated assortment of four or five Mediterranean comfort foods, such as eggplant, mussels, and braised meats, rounds out the small selection of specials. Hanger steak with garlic and rosemary, at $10, is a generous, sliced portion of this flavorful butcher's cut, awash in its own juices on a plate with nothing else. Pair the rare meat with the bare-bones charred cabbage wedge ($6) for a stripped-down bistro meal, and savor the liquid with the crisp, chewy, generously oiled fresh focaccia ($3). Having grown up in a family of freshwater fishermen, I welcome any opportunity to avoid trout, but Luce's baked stuffed version ($12) looked crisp and meaty, and was on many tables.
The only letdown during these visits was the watermelon pudding dessert ($7), a cold and mushy gelatinous half-sphere that tasted faintly of the fruit and mainly of nothing. Nicer was the Luce cake ($7), a cautiously sweet, crumbly, custard-filled pastry dusted with powdered sugar and chopped pistachios.
Luce is exactly the restaurant I didn't know I was looking for: affordable, personal, and true to itself. The space under-promises, the kitchen over-delivers, and well before the modest check arrived, I had claimed it as my own. Get in line, and make it yours as well.
Wed-Sun 11 am-10 pm. Reservations for eight or more. Beer, wine, and coffee available. Expect waits during peak times from here on out.