Restaurant Review

At Lucca in Bordentown, Italian Elegance Is Redefined

Yes, there's a dress code—but the food, drink and service are anything but stuffy.

Halibut à la Don Pino at Ristorante Lucca in Bordentown
Halibut à la Don Pino. Photo: Paul Bartholomew

Tucked into a mauve velveteen banquette, I gaze across the vast dining room, with its gilded chandeliers, framed photos of famous Italians, and painted mural of a seaside Italian village. Yet what captures my attention are the other diners here at Ristorante Lucca & Piano Lounge in Bordentown. The men wear sports jackets, many with ties. The women are swathed in silk dresses, spangly tops and high heels.

Soon after being seated at a white-clothed table set with sterling silver and elegant glassware, all imported from Italy, we are handed menus that light up when opened. As the evening progresses, several staff members, sporting formal attire and Italian accents, deliver complimentary amuse-bouches, suggest wine pairings, prepare tableside Caesar salad, filet our fish, sauce our meat, or just check how things are going.

Ristorante Lucca's dining room

Lucca’s dining room. Photo: Paul Bartholomew

Though we’re in what was once a popular diner on a busy highway a few miles south of Trenton, we feel transported to Miami or Las Vegas a few decades back. Indeed, that was the intent when managing partner William Burris and his investment partners embarked last year on transforming the Mastoris Diner—a Route 130 institution that closed during the pandemic after more than 60 years—into a destination.

Burris, who has been involved in restaurants for more than 50 years, lately as part of the Tide Table Group operating several popular restaurants on Long Beach Island, was determined to bring back fine dining. To do so, he hired as general manager Giuseppe “Pino” Algeri, who has run highly regarded Italian restaurants in the United States and abroad, and to run the kitchen, Maurizio Peccolo, a much-decorated chef from Northern Italy who has cooked around the world, most recently in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Paula Johns entertains in Ristorante Lucca's piano lounge

Paula Johns entertains in Lucca’s piano lounge. Photo: Paul Bartholomew

After what Burris says has been a nearly $6 million investment, the 250-seat restaurant and piano lounge opened a week before Christmas. Guests enter the marble-floored lobby, already advised on the website they “must adhere to our dress code, where jackets are mandatory.” No jacket? Here’s a loaner. Not permitted: jeans, T-shirts, shorts, sneakers, flip-flops, very short hemlines, leggings, spandex and open midriffs. Lucca’s patrons are mostly happy to comply, according to Algeri.

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“Something has been missing,” says Algeri, 66, who hails from Calabria and was formerly partner/owner of Girasole in Atlantic City and Philadelphia. “The idea is to bring back old-fashioned dining in an elegant place, with sophisticated tableside service and music, and top-quality food. Once people are here, they love it.”

House-made pastas ready for cooking at Ristorante Lucca in Bordentown

House-made pastas ready for cooking. Photo: Paul Bartholomew

After wardrobe, prepare your wallet. Cocktails and starters hover around $20-$25, while most entrées are more than $50—sides sold separately. Bottles of wine—more than 300 selections from all 20 regions in Italy—run $95–$500. The restaurant also tacks on a mandatory 22 percent tip, which Burris says is included “because I need my people to work really hard here. More often than not, customers end up leaving extra.”

On our first visit, our hardworking and knowledgeable waiter, Alessandro, walked us through the large menu, recommending the burrata appetizer (stunningly soft cheese atop pesto-coated tomatoes and arugula, topped with plump anchovies), and the curly pan-seared octopus over creamy chickpea purée.

Caesar salad ingredients for tableside preparation at Ristorante Lucca in Bordentown

Caesar salad ingredients for tableside preparation. Photo: Paul Bartholomew

In an interview after we dined at Lucca, Peccolo described the process of preparing octopus. “I hold him by the head and dip him three times in the boiling fish stock till he puffs up. I then let him relax in the stock for four or five hours. If I take him out when he’s hot, he’s dry. If I let him cool in the stock, he’s more moist.”

Another outstanding starter was the generous bluefin tuna tartare mixed with chopped olives, anchovies and parsley, and topped with two giant capers. Caesar salad came with showmanship. Announcing each of the ingredients as they were combined with flair in a large wooden bowl, our waiter produced what might have been the best Caesar I’d ever eaten, the crisp Romaine perfectly coated in a seductive garlic-and-anchovy dressing.

General manager Pino Algeri adds the finishing touches to the tableside Caesar salad at Ristorante Lucca in Boredntown

General manager Pino Algeri adds the finishing touches to the tableside Caesar salad. Photo: Paul Bartholomew

All pastas are made in house and served al dente. Tagliatelle Romagnola was enrobed in a rich ragù of tomato, beef, pork and guanciale. Less appealing was caserecce pasta with diced chicken and asparagus in an underseasoned cream sauce.

Tagliatelle Romagnolo at Ristorane Lucca in Bordentown

Tagliatelle Romagnolo. Photo: Paul Bartholomew

Though ostensibly an Italian, the meat-forward menu suggests steak house. The kitchen shines here, with superior cuts from Wells Meats in Philadelphia and D’Artagnan in Union, mostly cooked on a charcoal grill. Outstanding were the juicy lamb chops in red wine reduction and the grilled Berkshire pork chop with flavor-enhancing fat. Equally satisfying was crisp-skinned duck breast, cooked sous vide, then pan-fried and bathed in a savory rosemary and orange liqueur sauce.

Lamb chops with red wine reduction and mashed potato at Ristorante Lucca in Bordentown

Lamb chops with red wine reduction and mashed potato. Photo: Paul Bartholomew

Pan-seared colossal scallops were divine in saffron cream sauce topped with salmon roe. Calabrese-style halibut “alla Don Pino”—pan-fried with lemon, butter and honey, named for the general manager—was a bit overcooked.

Classic Italian desserts include a moist baba cake soaked in limoncello, as well as a parfait-like coppa del terrae di Romagna layered with rich mascarpone and crunchy Amaretto cookies. But if you have room for just one, make it the sublime tiramisu, richly dusted with cocoa.

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Restaurant Details

  • Cuisine Type:
  • Price Range:
    Expensive–Very Expensive
  • Price Details:
    Appetizers, $20-$30; entrées, $42-$95; sides, $11-$13
  • Ambience:
    Elegant but not stuffy
  • Service:
    Polished, attentive
  • Wine list:
    Full bar; large, exclusively Italian wine list