13 March 2015

Casa Luca makes DC dining choices complicated

I planned my dinner at Casa Luca in DC for almost a year. I had previously eaten at Fabio Trabocchi’s other two DC restaurants. I had lunch at Fiola in 2012. It was fabulous. (Click here for the review I wrote.) Then a year ago, I had dinner at Fiola Mare, specializing in fish and seafood. Great food and beautiful venue, but I had trouble with the service. (Click here for that review.)

For me, the appeal of trying his third restaurant was partly curiosity. I wanted to see what the chef did differently from his other two places. It also was partly because I so enjoyed the Italian cooking served at his DC restaurants, quite different from what’s served at Italian restaurants in Minnesota.

So I was in DC alone on a Saturday night. My plane arrived early evening, so I made a later dinner reservation. I didn’t have any trouble getting a table. But in retrospect, I think that was because it was a little later than the usual dinner rush.

When I got there, Casa Luca was hopping! It seemed like there were two large parties ahead of me. When I checked in at the reception desk, I was told that a table was just being cleared and it would be a couple of minutes. As an alternative to waiting, I was offered a single seat at the bar. But that wasn’t the dining experience I wanted, so I declined. There was no hint that they were trying to push me to take a seat at the bar. I think it truly was intended to avoid any wait at all.

(This was quite a different reception from the dinner I had at Fiola Mare. In my review, I speculated that perhaps my service was below par because I was a table for one. In any case, that experience was not replicated at Casa Luca. In fact, the manager stopped by my table to personally apologize for the brief wait that I experienced, and she stopped back periodically throughout the evening to make sure everything was going well.)

On its web site, Casa Luca is described as a family-friendly ‘osteria’ – a place to relax and enjoy a casual meal and a glass of wine. Well, maybe … maybe with my adult kids. But I don’t think I’d take smaller children there, and maybe not teenagers either. It’s not that casual. And it’s also pricy. Maybe not quite as expensive as Fiola or Fiola Mare. But I’d consider it more of a special occasion restaurant rather than a place for a family gathering.

One more comment about the ‘casual’ thing. I wore a coat and tie. I didn’t have to. There were a few patrons wearing jeans. But most of the diners were fairly nicely dressed.

So far, so good. Welcoming reception. Relaxing ambiance. Now for the menu.

I spotted a cocktail on the menu that sounded intriguing. It was called Il Palio, made with bourbon, vermouth, and orange bitters served over something called Campari ice. I liked it and jotted down the ingredients to try to replicate it at home. But I wasn’t sure what they meant by Campari ice. So when I got home, I did a search on the internet. I was pleasantly surprised to find the recipe on the Saveur web site, crediting the bartender at Casa Luca for inventing the cocktail. (Click here for that recipe.) I haven’t tried it yet, but I will soon.

My wife always feels bad for me when I tell her I ate alone. I really don’t mind. But the main problem is that you either end up trying several things on the menu and ordering too much food, or you just order what you’re hungry for and only get to sample a couple things. I only got a couple items.

The menu at Casa Luca starts with a listing of ‘piccoletti’ described as small nibbles. I saw a farro salad that looked interesting and ordered that. It was more than a nibble, I can attest to that. In fact, it was a nice portioned starter and could have been split between two people. Along with smoked farro, the salad had artichokes, red peppers, and a generous portion of tender lobster meat. It was excellent.

For my entrée, I went with a daily special, described as a grilled lamb shoulder rack. It’s a cut I don’t think I’ve heard of much less eaten. I’ve had shoulder roast before, and my server said that this dish starts out being roasted and then cut into chops and finished on a grill. It might have been slightly more fatty than rib chops or loin chops. But it was delicious and very tender. There was a portion of roasted cauliflower served on the plate with the lamb, and that also was delicious. I’ve read that cauliflower is the new ‘in’ vegetable.

I had looked at Casa Luca’s wine list online and was eager to try a glass of one of their Italian reds. I opted for a Vajra Langhe Rosso, a blend of nebbiolo and barbera. It was perfect with the lamb. (On our next trip to Italy, I’ve got to visit the Piedmont region where this wine came from.)

So you can tell, I’m raving about this restaurant. I’d love it if just one of Trabocchi’s restaurants were in Minnesota. But alas, I’ll just have to wait for future trips to DC. Of the three, I think that I still like Fiola the best, and I really ought to try it for dinner. Then I’d rank Casa Luca as my second favorite. I’m probably being too harsh about my service complaints from Fiola Mare. The food was good and the setting is beautiful. But I just don’t have any compelling reason to go back.

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