In the hands of general manager Michael Del Pietro, the family's latest concept of "going back to our roots with an Italian restaurant" translates to "Italian food" rather than "St. Louis Italian food." Meaning no Provel cheese or toasted ravioli. Del Pietro says that because it's a new space, they had to go somewhat contemporary, design-wise. Sister Lea Dougherty's balance of high-tech, elegant and casual has been beautifully executed by Chiodini and Associates. Executive chef Marc Del Pietro offers a creative and varied menu of pastas, pizzas, entrées and antipasti. (He even started making his own mozzarella a few weeks back, owing to dissatisfaction with the product they were buying.) The servers -- dressed in black, which seems to be the uniform of Clayton diners as well -- are efficient, pleasant and knowledgeable, even if ours seemed new and unable to answer many questions without checking with the kitchen.
While nowhere near the $3 million it typically takes to open a restaurant in, say, New York, Luciano's may be the family's most expensive undertaking to date, checking in at $1.5 million. But when you're situated next to the Ritz-Carlton, costs are certain to soar as high as the high-rise building in which Luciano's is located. With only a couple of entrées breaking the $20 barrier, though, the restaurant has opted not to slap the diner in the face with those costs. Even the pricey dishes are good values -- "La Griglia Mista," for instance, comprises a twelve-ounce beef tenderloin, four pancetta-wrapped shrimp and two lamb chops. On one visit, a dining companion interrupted the server mid-description. "I'll take it," he said, as if he'd just been offered a new car with leather seats and a sunroof thrown in.
He wasn't interested in anything else on the plate -- not even the rich-tasting mixture of chopped tomatoes, cannellini and red kidney beans and fresh green beans that sat in the middle of this big, rustic dish. A preparation such as this one requires precise coordination in the kitchen: The beef came out medium-rare as ordered, the lamb rare and juicy, the shrimp plump and moist and the dark pan juices concentrated and flavorful. Not so remarkable was the accompanying house chopped salad, which was a bit dry. The Caesar was a little better, but nothing special.
Sampling a few appetizers proved wise. Small, uniform rings of flash-fried calamari served over a thick marinara sauce made me think of the area around the Ritz-Carlton: clean, orderly and devoid of anything unsightly. An appetizer special of three large pan-seared scallops, meanwhile, captured the flavor of the season, served on a bed of fresh spinach and topped with a summery sweet sauce of sautéed peaches and sliced green grapes. We briefly considered skipping the entrées entirely in favor of a few more orders of these addictive shellfish.
Combinations of unexpected flavors and textures didn't stop with the scallops and fruits. A mixture of sliced crisp radishes, carrots and green beans in a truffle vinaigrette paired well beside a flour-dusted roasted halibut -- not your typical vegetable medley. And when a grilled pork loin comes topped with a heady sauce of sun-dried tomatoes and crushed Italian olives, you know someone in the kitchen has visited Sicily. Pastas are prepared simply but creatively. Gnocchi, those thimble-size dumplings, are house-made and served with a light, fresh-tasting marinara sauce and sprigs of fresh basil. Run-of-the-mill mushrooms won't do for Del Pietro's fettuccine dish; the chef uses chanterelles and other exotics, and he simmers leeks and whole roasted garlic cloves in the rich, brothy sauce.
Pizzas make good meals, especially if ordered with a salad, or they can be shared as an appetizer or side dish. The restaurant's thin, crisp house-made crust is a good vehicle for a combo of Italian sausage, roasted onions and tomatoes, or wild mushrooms, spinach, fontina cheese and scallions. With Del Pietro now making his own mozzarella, the mozzarella, tomato and basil pizza would be another good bet.
Another good bet is Luciano's patio on a pleasant summer evening. Some may quibble with the view (another massive high-rise and the Ritz-Carlton), but really, there are so few areas in St. Louis to enjoy outdoor dining. Eating inside, too, is a visual feast: relaxed hues, two contemporary chandeliers with squiggly multicolored lights, three heavy butcher blocks in the middle of the room holding big vases bursting with sunflowers and floor-to-ceiling windows where diners can see and be seen. When you enter Luciano's, the large bar area greets you with rustic tile flooring; an expansive, four-sided bar topped with stainless steel; and matching overhead steel wine-glass racks. There are four TV sets, but when we visited, the volume was, thoughtfully, turned down.
Wines lean toward Italian, of course. There's a large selection, divided according to region. Six whites and six reds are offered by the glass, all priced at $7 (a superb northern Italian pinot bianco by Alois Lageder was a nice surprise). Can't decide? Luciano's accommodates by offering wine flights of three half-glass pours of red or white for $9.
Desserts are simple affairs. An order of cannoli came two to a plate, stuffed with a lusciously light ricotta filling laced with bits of chocolate. The lemon tart, however, was the finish that best matched the weather: flaky pastry crust and a thin layer of summery lemon tartness to refresh the palate. There are also several sorbets and ice creams, including a cappuccino-flavored one.
The Del Pietros' march through Clayton ain't exactly the Second Punic War, but unlike Hannibal and his ill-fated Italian venture, this army of restaurateurs has planned well.