WE ALL HAVE GO-TO'S for our most particular cravings: a sushi spot, a favorite pho, some big gluttonous burger, a hangover breakfast. A place you know you'll feel comfortable, where you'll get consistently good food, good-enough service, and where you can afford to eat on a semi-regular basis (when your newspaper isn't footing the bill).
I have my own little habits carved out pretty well, but a major hole in my routine has been affordable Italian. Pizza? Sure. Same goes for a night I want to splurge. If I put off dinner until late enough in the evening, Nostrana's happy hour has me covered. But a Wednesday night, when I feel like sitting with a book or meeting a friend, drinking house wine and eating pasta? I'm sure there's plenty of fish in the sea, but until a couple weeks ago, I hadn't found my match.
Enter Luce, the new casual Italian eatery from John Taboada, who brought you Navarre, and Giovanna Parolari, who owns Una, a dress shop around the corner from my house that most women I know drool over. What started last year as a private events space has now expanded to a full-on restaurant, serving up lunch and dinner Wednesday through Sunday. Staying true to both culinary and retail backgrounds, Luce also operates as a sort of mercantile of specialized European culinary products—imported sauces, anchovies, and olive oils, along with kitchenware (they sell a Swedish mushroom brush that would have come in pretty handy after chanterelle foraging last month).
The small dining room has the feel of a charming, European general store. Shelving takes up most of the non-windowed wall space, and about 10 tables are scattered across the black-and-white tiles. During lunch the space is filled with sunlight; at night, it's all candles and dim bulbs.
Lunch and dinner menus are identical, typed in a simple courier font on white letter-sized paper. There are about 20 antipasti to choose from, each priced at $2 for a single serving. Portions are small, verging on tiny, but mixing and matching four or five makes for a pretty delightful and totally affordable appetizer (still, if everyone in your party of four wants to sample the chicken liver mousse, you might spring for two orders). I haven't made it all the way through the antipasti list, but some highlights have been the marinated beets and carrots, the arancini (a breaded and deep-fried ball of risotto), and the cardoon salad with olives. I also highly recommend an order of the focaccia bread to round out your starter course (you can choose from salt, onion, or raisin varieties).
The entrée portion of the menu is split between pastas and entrées. Most pasta dishes are $7 for a half order and $14 for a full (half orders are relatively small, but with a few antipasti, they make for a pretty satisfying meal). The heavier options include a tagliatelle with beef and pork ragu, and a trenette with pesto, beans, and potatoes, but my favorites are the simpler dishes. When our waitress brought my friend's spaghetti with garlic and hot peppers, it looked like nothing but a plate of plain noodles—but the appearance is deceiving. I was blown away by how much spice and flavor the kitchen was able to infuse into the oil. The orecchiette with arugula and anchovies isn't for anyone that isn't in love with brined fish—the anchovies really dominate the flavor—but for those of us who are, it's quite a treat.
The highlight of the specials section, to my mind, is undoubtedly the baked stuffed trout ($12). The flavors were straightforward, but the texture was spot-on—the crisp skin gave way to a rich, delicate interior. The trout is filleted and filled with garlic, bread crumbs, and herbs. I was less impressed with the only vegetarian special, eggplant ($8) served over saffron rice and mozzarella (the eggplant was a tad too chewy), but you can also choose from mussels in tomato sauce ($9), braised chicken with capers ($9), or hanger steak with garlic and rosemary ($9).
I've only saved room for dessert once, but I'm happy to recommend the Luce Cake, a sponge cake with pastry cream and pistachios. Like most of the menu, the flavors are simple and direct, and the preparation is perfect.
I'm penciling in Luce's straightforward, consistent, and affordable meals as a regular part of my rotation. It's worth seeking out regardless of what part of town you're coming from, but for those of us in the neighborhood, it's an especially welcome treat.