Everything about Lucco screams, “Big!” Its vaulted wooden ceiling rises high above the 130 seats. Emblazoned in large letters over the open kitchen is “Mangia, bevi, vivi.” (eat, drink, live). Perched atop a scaffold of spirits at the bar, a vintage red bicycle with Lucco-logoed delivery basket serves as a focal point.
Lucco, which opened in 2018, is the latest from the Park Restaurant Group, which also operates the Hills Tavern in Millburn, as well as Pizzeta Enoteca and Landmark Tavern in Livingston. The kitchen is run by executive chef Anthony Russo, a CIA grad who has worked with chefs David Burke and Todd English.
Russo describes Lucco’s cuisine as “contemporary Italian-American.” Portions are large and so is the menu, which runs the gamut from antipasti to pizza, pasta, seafood and steak. There’s even a Spritz Bar with a half-dozen bubbly aperitivos.
Sfizi—a menu section devoted to small, mostly vegetable-centered dishes—made for a good start to the meal. I particularly liked the roasted baby heirloom carrots with pistachios and honey, as well as the truffle oil-scented potato croquettes, fried crisp and served with a lemon-garlic aioli.
Among antipasti, Russo’s meatballs, a blend of pork, beef and veal, were exceptionally light and flavorful. While he does use breadcrumbs to bind the meat, he says he relies mostly on milk and Pecorino Romano to pull everything together. The meatballs get an extra shot of flavor from caramelized onions, which Russo blends into the meat. He reserves the onion-flavored oil to pan-fry the meatballs.
Baked clams were tasty as well. Russo sources middlenecks from Peter’s Fish Market in Midland Park, stuffs them with seasoned breadcrumbs, broils them and serves the bivalves with an amalgam of white wine, clam juice and Calabrian chili-infused butter. (Russo has a thing for those chilies, which make multiple appearances on the menu.)
Great pizza is all about the crust—a balance of airiness, crunch and chew. I found the crust on the Margherita to be thin and dense. Better was the pan-baked Roman pizza. Though it didn’t resemble any pizza I’ve tasted in the Eternal City, it was appealingly topped with tomato sauce, Auricchio provolone and pepperoni from Salumeria Biellese in Hackensack. The crust was puffier and more interesting than the Margherita, but it was laden with olive oil. A drizzle of piquant Calabrian chili honey imparted an interesting salty-sweet effect.
Among entrées, a dish of cavatelli in short-rib sauce with whipped ricotta was hearty and filling, but it was drowned in a surfeit of sauce. Squid-ink linguine with shellfish simmered in white wine and garlic was oddly assembled and plated. The linguine was laid over a base of tomato sauce, the seafood plopped on top. The dish was weirdly disaggregated. The seafood seemed fresh, but the dish as a whole was bland.
Squid ink made another appearance in risotto accompanied by shrimp. Russo told me the ink provides umami, but I found the effect too faint to detect. On the other hand, I had no argument with the shrimp, which were plump and delectable positioned around the black risotto. I also liked the mildly spicy butter sauce, infused with those Calabrian chilies.
For dessert, Russo has an interesting take on cheesecake, made from cream cheese, sour cream and mascarpone over a crust of crushed Nilla wafers and brown sugar. The sour cream, with a touch of lemon zest, gave the cake a light, attractive tang. A balsamic glaze added rounded sweetness with a hint of acidity. Amid the din of Lucco’s busy dining room, with its hard surfaces reflecting sound, it provided a soothing and subtle end note.Click here to leave a comment