One test of a restaurant is whether you can do better at home without killing yourself. In regard to pasta and sauce, my answer is usually an emphatic "yes." Making a slow-cooked sauce isn't hard. A fresher sauce --- what some might call a "marinara" --- is even simpler. There are good brands of pasta in the stores, and we cook them exactly how we like them. It's fast, good, and cheap. And we make far better salads than do most Italian restaurants.
But Italian cuisine is much richer than pasta, sauce, and iceberg salads with poor dressings. Portobello, Verona, and Mario's Via Abruzzi all strive to show this, with decent results. My recent experiences at Lucano, though, were the best I've had at any local Italian restaurant.
Set your expectations properly: no huge, family-style portions of pasta and sauce. If you're a fan of that, you will find Lucano expensive. But if you're looking for subtlety and top-notch food from appetizer through salad and dessert, you need to go.
Husband and wife Chuck and Joann Formoso, along with Chuck's chef-sister Sylvia Formoso, started Lucano four years ago so they'd have a place where they would want to eat. Chuck works at Olindo's, providing him with a conduit for the best ingredients, largely imported. But Sylvia is the treasure. "Ever since I was little, 5 or 6, I would sit and watch Julia Child," she says. "I couldn't even read English, but it was my favorite show."
Sylvia Formoso learned cooking by immersing herself in it, watching anyone and everyone cook, taking in bits and pieces that she has fused into her own style. The family is from the Lucania region in Southern Italy, and while Lucano's food is largely Southern Italian, it's not strictly regional. As the weather gets cold, for example, you'll see risotto popping up.
Fava e verdure, Lucano's greens and beans, is the best dish of that stripe I've ever had, and quite unusual ($8). Sylvia slowly cooks dried fava beans until they break down into a hearty mash. She mixes that with fresh garlic and olive oil and serves it over escarole cooked at the last minute. Earthy, balanced, a tad sweet, and without a hint of bitterness, it's a wonder.
Palermo's makes Lucano's Sicilian sausage, served with strips of roasted red pepper ($7). If you like sausage, it's a must. My favorite starter was a stuffed, baked zucchini ($8). Small, delicate zucchini are hollowed out and filled with caramelized vegetables, shrimp, and calamari that Sylvia somehow imbues with a magical texture, present and yet delicate.
I didn't try a soup, but sources rave. The creamed cauliflower, with garlic and truffle but no butter or cheese, is particularly hyped. Salads are pricy but excellent. I loved both field greens with fennel and orange in an orange vinaigrette ($5), and fresh beets tossed with pecorino cheese and a balsamic vinaigrette over mesclun ($6).
The menu includes primi piatti (first courses) and secondi piatti (second courses), though you won't need both. The first courses are pastas with a variety of fresh-cooked sauces. My wife, Anne, liked the lasagna with meat sauce so well, she forgot to let me try it ($14). Buscatini is a thick, hollow spaghetti than comes all 'amatriciana, meaning with a fresh tomato sauce featuring pancetta, caramelized onion, and hot pepper ($17). The sweetness of the onion, with the slight cured flavor and a hint of heat, is outstanding.
Lucano's pastas are mostly imported, including their gnocchi (with lamb sauce, $16). The tortellini, though, is made for Olindo's in Schenectady. Your pasta will come al dente every time, so if that's not to your taste, be sure to say so. All pastas are cooked to order.
Second courses are meat and fish. The seafood of the day features three types, pan seared then baked with olives and tomatoes ($27). I had salmon, a wonderful piece of grouper, and shrimp, all cooked to maintain their distinctive textures. Veal sautéed in a cognac sauce with mushrooms was almost too subtle, but the flavor deepened as you worked through the dish ($18). The simply grilled rack of New Zealand lamb, rubbed with garlic and olive oil, is aromatic and succulent ($20).
The desserts held to the standard, particularly a pear tart with strong almond flavor and various ice creams inside light, crisp shells. The regular coffee was acceptable, but the espresso was excellent, strong without being bitter.
Compared to that of similarly priced restaurants, the service is less professional, but more friendly. Chuck and Joann hover, and you do feel, to borrow a phrase, like their "special guests." All things considered, Lucano stands a head above its Italian competition, and belongs on the short list of our finest restaurants, regardless of type.
Ristorante Lucano, 1815 East Avenue, 244-3460. Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.
The independent steakhouse returns to Rochester! Tony Gullace, chef-owner at Max of Eastman Place, has just opened Max Chophouse in the former Dish location, 1456 Monroe Avenue (271-3510). It's open for dinner every night. Mark Cupolo, who had fantastic steaks at Victor Grilling Company, will be the chef.
--- Michael Warren Thomas
Michael Warren Thomas can be heard on WYSL 1040 AM. Tune in on Saturdays for gardening, restaurants, and travel from 9 to noon, and on Sundays for Toronto restaurants and wine from 10 to noon. Listen live on the web at www.SavorLife.com.