"When your most prominent architectural feature is the exit sign, you know you have a problem," my dining companion observed dryly as we surveyed Luciano's drab interior. The restaurant is housed in Clayton Plaza, a new high-rise condominium tower that stands shoulder to shoulder with the Ritz-Carlton. Its plain-vanilla dining room resembles nothing so much as an expensive Florida timeshare, right down to the beige sculptured carpet and rattan café chairs.
Stakeholders in the Del Pietro's Culinart group faced the same demographic conundrum tackled by the newly opened restaurant Smith & Slay's: It must attract the wealthy, mainly older residents of the condominium without seeming stodgy to the slipstream of blithe young diners that flows through Clayton every weekend. Slay's cleverly uses a retro supper-club theme to appeal to both groups. Luciano's, in a Clintonesque effort to please everyone, is done up in soporific neutrals. The blandness of the setting calls to mind those prisons in which the walls are painted an institutional green to soothe agitated inmates. This middle-of-the-road strategy certainly avoids alienating the AARP lobby, but it leaves the bar as empty as an Enron boardroom.
Aside from those eye-catching exit signs, Luciano's dining room is illumined by incongruous chandeliers whose tiny Technicolor bulbs look like the Christmas lights strung up year-round above bars in Festus and South City. A word of caution, ladies: This is not ideal date lighting. One side of the table may be bright enough to stitch up an episiotomy, whereas splotchy shadows on the other side throw every wrinkle and blemish into relief. Low-hanging spots would even out the lighting, but it seems as though the restaurant wants to be able to quickly add or remove tables depending on bookings.
We predict they'll be scooting four-tops into every corner once the word gets out about the food here. St. Louis has a glut of Italian restaurants, yet chef Mark Del Pietro and manager Jamie Del Pietro have hit upon a unique style. They split the difference between wicker-bread-basket informality and lugubrious stuffiness. And they wisely do not try to usurp the "rustic Italian food" label that's already represented so well by places such as Trattoria Marcella, I Fratellini and Lorenzo's Trattoria.
The menu is staid, with few surprises, and we've yet to see a real Italian belly up to a sixteen-ounce strip steak. (Nor, for that matter, would any self-respecting Sicilian knock back a sissy California Merlot from Luciano's all-things-to-all-people wine list.) So why do we like the food? It's simple. Even the most timeworn recipes taste better than other versions we've had. A touchstone at most upscale Italian restaurants, for instance, is a salad of field greens or basil leaves, sliced tomatoes, mozzarella di bufala and roasted red peppers. But the dish is often a bust because the tomatoes are unripe or because the unsalted fresh mozzarella lacks punch. Mr. Del Pietro uses pristine tomatoes, and he splashes a white-balsamic vinaigrette over the salad to tease more flavor from the vegetables and unify the elements of the dish.
The best way to dine at Luciano's is to share several antipasti, sides, salads, soups and half-portions of pasta (available on request). This spread might include a side of eggplant Parmigiano. The slices of melanzane, layered with Parmigiano-Reggiano and Fontina cheeses and tomato sauce, have no trace of the bitterness and mushiness that have given the dish a bad name. Oven-roasted mussels in saffron cream are another fine choice. The pale-lemon broth is more reminiscent of a briny tide pool than of a gluttonous cream sauce. The menu includes five pizzas made with wood-fired crusts that are good enough to stand on their own, perhaps brushed with a little olive oil and sprinkled with coarse salt. Our pizza, a special one evening, was freighted with Gorgonzola and Parmigiano cheeses, whole arugula leaves, caramelized pear wedges and broad ribbons of prosciutto di Parma curled up like wood shavings.
The measure of an Italian restaurant is taken by its pastas, of course, and Luciano's scores high with its tortelloni. These pie-shaped pillows of pasta, puffed with cheese, are each about the diameter of a quarter. They're blanketed with a tight pesto cream brightened with scraps of sun-dried tomatoes. As gratuitous as all this goopiness sounds (and we'll spare you the trite joke about the cardiologist), the dish doesn't have the palate-coating heaviness of most cream sauces. Encouraged by this foray onto the pasta list, we decided to try linguini with clam sauce, a dish that always sounds promising in theory but fizzles in practice. This rendition, too -- stiff store-bought linguini slicked with a thin garlicky sheen -- was a dud. It was nevertheless the best we've had, owing to the addition of littleneck clams in-shell. But we haven't found a St. Louis restaurant yet that rolls out its own linguini. If we can do it at home, surely a kitchen full of culinary-school grads could manage. Mr. Del Pietro tells us that he and his prep cooks plan to begin making their pasta in-house soon, and we hope they give the linguini a whirl.
If the dinner menu treads on familiar territory, the dessert menu goes steppin' out. We swooned over pastry chef Sheryl Sherman's espresso granita, all soupy and icy and boozy. It's nothing more than sweetened espresso with a splash of Nocello walnut liqueur, stirred now and then as it freezes until the texture resembles that of tiny ice chips. But as with top-quality ice cream and sorbet, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The granita is elegantly served in the balloon globe of a brandy snifter. Even if it weren't so blissfully good, it would be worth ordering just to get at the garnish of candy-coated walnuts as big as pet-store turtles. This dessert's nearest rival is a chocolate-chestnut semifreddo. The word is Italian for "half-cold," and cookbook author Lidia Bastianich loosely translates it as "soft ice cream." Ms. Sherman's version tastes like barely frozen chocolate pudding, with a crystalline texture contributed by crunchy ground chestnuts. The semifreddo rests on a little doily of spingi, a warm, snowflake-shaped pastry. It's made of pâte à choux, a sticky dough that's also used in profiteroles and éclairs. With apologies to the chef, this delicate creation can only be described as a highbrow funnel cake.
One recent evening at Luciano's, the more experienced servers (yes, more than one) were assigned to the center square, where Vince Bommarito doled out more handshakes and manly shoulder claps than Al Gore on a visit to New Hampshire. He greeted guests as though Luciano's were his own restaurant, except that the patrons were coming to him and not the other way around. Bommarito has a reputation for running a tight ship at Tony's, and we wondered whether he had noticed the dumping ground the valet parking attendants had created just outside Luciano's front door. Cigarette packs, cell phones, water glasses and pitchers formed a trail of detritus pointing the way to the entrance. Will someone please buy these guys a valet stand?
Our servers were still a bit wet behind the ears. One was so tentative that he dribbled wine all over the glass and tablecloth. Another couldn't quite remember both of the nightly specials, exhaling like a relieved spelling-bee contestant when he finally spluttered out the last ingredient. These problems are trifling and will improve as the servers learn the menu and gain confidence. They also need to practice reading tables. It should have quickly become obvious to our waiter that we wanted to take our time, but he kept popping by to pressure us for our wine and food orders. He reminded us of an irrepressible kid who keeps leaning into the front seat to ask, "Are we there yet? Are we there yet?" Maybe not. But despite a few bumps in the road, we're happy to report that Mr. Del Pietro is wide awake behind the wheel.
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