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Best New Restaurant 

Luciano's Trattoria

Luciano's is not only the best new restaurant in town, it's also the most improved new restaurant. Opening the place was a mammoth undertaking -- it has 7,000 square feet of space and seats 235 diners. But when the restaurant debuted in June 2002, after just three months of construction, we were awed by the spare, harmonious food that emerged from the kitchen of chef Marc Del Pietro and pastry chef Sheryl Sherman. But the cavernous dining room, the backdrop for all that wonderful food, was at once grand and lowbrow, the way J-Lo's mansion in Woodland Hills might look. The décor had a cold sort of opulence that the architects dubbed "timeless" because it had no identifiable style. But now silkscreen prints and oil paintings give the room the sedate beauty of an art gallery. More seating has been added on the patio, and a valet stand has been installed. And at the end of September, the restaurant will open for breakfast and Sunday brunch.

When Luciano's first debuted, the servers were eager to please but their skills were a bit dubious. Manager Michael Del Pietro hired more servers with fine-dining experience and tailored the training to each person's needs; servers attend food classes and wine tastings so that they can make informed recommendations. But it's really not the pampering or the swank surroundings that draw us to Luciano's. It's the food. Del Pietro cooks with graceful assurance, never crowding a dish with too many fussy ingredients. He knows how to put a good sear on a grouper, make a velvety beurre nantais and use restraint with obnoxious herbs such as rosemary and tarragon. Del Pietro's approach is complemented by the clever work of Sherman. She, too, avoids ornate creations that do nothing but muddle perfectly good flavors. Her desserts, poised and tasteful, have an Italian flair without descending into the tried-and-trite.

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