19 December 2013

Luci Ancora in St. Paul–good, but is this the best we can do?

I haven’t ranted about Italian restaurants in Minnesota lately. My dinner at Luci Ancora in mid-December gives me a chance to ask, yet again: “Why don’t we have first class Italian restaurants in Minnesots?”

Not that there’s anything wrong with Luci Ancora. I had a perfectly fine meal with a couple of former co-workers who live in Washington, DC. But when it was all over, we agreed that it just isn’t in the same class as great DC Italian restaurants, such as Fiola, Acqua al 2, Bibiana.

This was my first time eating at Luci Ancora. I’ve heard a lot of good things about it. It’s in a nice location, right across the street from the campus of St. Catherine University. They have a small parking lot. I got there early enough to get a spot. It would have been easy to also get convenient street parking. But the city streets were still pretty snow-clogged, so I was glad to be in the lot.

Inside, Luci Ancora is very warm and welcoming. The modest-sized dining room is open and the tables are not at all crowded. There’s a natural wood fireplace on the wall opposite the entrance. The crackling warmth of the fire helped to take the chill out of the winter weather. We were meeting for an early dinner, and when I got there, most of the tables were open. I was given my choice of tables. I picked one near the fireplace. LuciAncora

Since I was early, I ordered a glass of wine to sip while waiting for my companions. The restaurant’s wine list is dominated by Italian winemakers, as you’d expect and as is appropriate. There’s a nice selection of moderately priced wine by the glass. I chose a barbera; $8. The same wines are available by the bottle at very reasonable prices. There’s also a good selection of more expensive wines by the bottle, again mostly Italian.

Luci Ancora offers a tasting menu – reduced size portions of daily specials. On Tuesdays, if two or more people order the tasting menu, it’s only $25. We were there on a Tuesday. The first course was crostini with tapenade. The second course was soup of the day or a salad. The soup was split pea with shrimp in shrimp broth. The pasta course was rigatoni with a lamb ragu. The fish was New Zealand salmon with radicchio and red cabbage slaw. As an alternative to the fish course, you can choose Kobe beef steak.

It was tempting, but in the end, none of us ordered it. I opted for a Caesar salad and lamb shank. The Caesar was very good, maybe a little heavy on the garlic (my wife complained when I got home), and I appreciated the anchovies. I’ve found many places don’t even offer anchovy on a Caesar because so many people don’t want it. My lamb shank was excellent. It was not at all fatty and was braised absolutely fork-tender. It was served ‘au jus’ in a bowl with tomatoes and carrots. I should have ordered more bread to soak up some of the juice, but I’d already eaten a couple of pieces with butter (wrong brand, i.e. not Land O Lakes). I had another glass of the barbera with the lamb, which was a great accompaniment.

Both of my companions had a mixed green salad. It looked good, but I think my Caesar was better. One of them had an order of the salmon special. It looked very good and was nicely presented. She ate every bite. The other person had the special pasta. That also looked delicious; I’m sure I would have enjoyed it.

So in the end, we had a good meal. But I told my wife when I got home, that I wouldn’t drive across town to go there again. We have Arezzo, Broder’s Pasta Bar, and Trattoria Tosca on the Minneapolis side of the river. And I’m still looking for a Minnesota Italian restaurant that makes me say ‘wow’ at the end of the meal.

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