Love the new name. Practical, too; at least they could keep the first two letters of the old Luciano moniker. They could have kept even more of the old menu, but Joe Buonincontri saw the light in more ways than one once he became sole owner. The Southwestern-accented Italian cuisine that was the inspiration for this former offshoot of the Luciano’s operation faltered with the departure of chef
Jesse Perez (he’s now in Atlanta). This could be seen as a disappointment, but perhaps the twain was never meant to meet. San Antonio has enough trouble with contemporary Italian cuisine as it is, never mind marrying it to cascabeles and cominos. Linguine ai vongole was what we wanted, and linguini ai vongole is what we got.
But not just any linguini ai vongole. Buonincontri has found a special source for the pasta, and it is just sturdy enough to be a real player in the simple and satisfying equation of clams, olive oil, garlic, and white wine. True, our clams were a trifle gritty, but the flavors were fine, the serving more than generous.
Generosity also characterized two appetizers, the arancini di riso and the polenta con carciofi, but here we would have been perfectly happy with half the amount of each. (“This is an Italian restaurant,” said our agreeable waiter. “You expect to leave full.”) The arancino, or fried rice ball melded with Parmigiano Reggiano, was served in a sea of Bolognese sauce and though the pairing of the toasty globe and the rustic Bolognese was inspired, we were left with a huge amount of the carrot-studded sauce at the end of the day.
But if the arancino was somewhat excessive, in true San Antonio style, the pan-fried polenta with artichoke hearts was totally over the top. We literally gasped. As good as it was, a single slab of the well-seasoned polenta would have been more than enough. (Reality check: A food critic is predictably likely to feel this way; the general public may not.) We had the option of simply not eating it all, of course, and that turned out to be easier than we might have liked due to an extremely briny sauce. Could have come from the artichoke hearts, or excess citrus in the lemon butter sauce; the mushrooms are not suspect, in any case. Don’t let my experience stop you from ordering the dish, however; apart from quantity, it’s well-conceived and the brininess is easily corrected.
After such substantial appetizers, a salad is in order, and the kitchen is perfectly happy to split one for you. If you order the rucola model, however, the sunny-side-up quail egg may be missing; it’s hard to divide one of those little suckers. But the blend of arugula, pancetta, pine nuts, and roasted peppers, served with a dab of ricotta and a pancetta-balsamic emulsion, is extremely appealing — if just a touch salty. And, as we had elected to linger a little longer before diving into entrées, an even more emphatic palate cleanser appeared: a glorious lemon sorbetto, creamy and tart all at once. (If I remember correctly, this and a tangerine version, also very good, are brought in from Italy.) Now, it’s true that we had been spotted, but the gesture was typical of the feeling of hospitality at Luce nonetheless. (Look at it this way: If this was special treatment, now they’ll feel obliged to do the same for everyone.)
Agnello scottaditto is one of those dishes critics feel obliged to order for several reasons — not the least of which is the name: finger-burning lamb. Luce may be pushing the envelope with this one, and I’m glad to see it. The tiny chops, their bone handles the instrument of potential digital distress, have been brined in a solution with anise and parsley, and though you don’t necessarily taste this unless you’re trying very hard to parse the ingredients, the brining does lend a haunting flavor. The tender lamb lollipops — hot enough, but not straight-off-the-grill dangerous — are served atop a mound of gnocchi di gorgonzola. The punchy gnocchi can be had as an entrée in its own right, and the critic would say that’s where the pillowy pasta would be best appreciated; it’s very good but a little assertive for the subtle lamb. Toasted garlic spinach, a triumph, and green chile mint pesto (a vestige of former times) round out the plate.
But let’s say you wanted to substitute another starch for the gnocchi — orzo, for example. At Luce, it’s a snap. I have it on the best authority that the kitchen, “complete with all the ingredients you would expect to find” can deliver on its promise to “prepare that special dish as you wish.” They prepared just such a plate of broccoli rabe and orecchiette for a friend, and he was extremely pleased. Our own accommodation continued at evening’s end when we were asked if we would like to have dessert under the pergola on the terrace. (Look for a water feature to add a little sound to an already pleasant environment soon.) The lemon-pine-nut tart accordingly tasted even better — especially with a glass of flower-scented gewürztraminer from Italy’s Alto Adige region.
With 23 wines by the glass, and more to come, Luce is also making good on its full title: Luce Ristorante Enoteca. A wine- bar menu with small plates of cold cuts, cheeses, vegetables, and seafood is soon to debut, and it will be perfect for that early evening snack in the bar or on the terrace. See you there.