Our visit to Lucca happened almost by accident. We had reservations at some quasi-Brazilian place, where we sat for 15 minutes and left — without menus or water or a single word from anyone at the restaurant.
But I knew we weren't far from Lucca. I'd been wanting to visit the place ever since it came into view on one of my of my many treks along Federal Highway. Newer restaurants called to me, but I never forgot Lucca's storefront setting with its distinctive, two-sided sign over the front door. Any restaurateur who pays this much attention to a sign — yes, those are angels on each side — must have something going on.
David Cianciullo does. Cianciullo — pronounced, "Chan-chulo" — opened Lucca six years ago, when he was just 27 years old. He'd been preparing to own an Italian restaurant all his life. For more than three decades, his father has owned La Molisana Italian restaurant in Montreal, Cianciullo's hometown. Cianciullo washed dishes at the restaurant before graduating to busboy, bartender and, finally, waiter. After moving to South Florida in 2001, he worked in Delray Beach and Deerfield Beach before opening his doors in the neighborhood known as Galt Ocean Mile.
Lucca is named after the city in Tuscany, but Cianciullo's family hails from Molise, farther south. Cianciullo describes the menu as broadly Italian with an emphasis on Tuscany. That's why a simple grilled steak or lamb is always on the specials board. While he still keeps veal meatballs ($8) on the appetizer menu, they're not nearly as popular as he expected them to be. They're very good.
Meals start with house-made focaccia bread served with whole cloves of roasted garlic. Grilled octopus ($13) is served simply, with lemon, garlic, olive oil and a pile of arugula. We also split a hearty bowl of sausage and white beans ($9): fennel sausage sauteed with pancetta, tomatoes and rosemary. A Caesar salad ($7) gets the lovely addition of crisp pancetta, along with croutons and creamy garlic dressing.
Pasta is a wonder at Lucca, including rigatoni Sicilian ($16, $12 half portion), with sausage, eggplant, olives, tomato and chili pepper; and classic penne puttanesca ($16, $12 half), with anchovies, capers, chili pepper, prosciutto, white wine, garlic and marinara.
While Cianciullo ended up cooking at his restaurant when a partnership with a chef ended, he's a natural. Branzino ($35), a special one night, was outstanding in a simple lemony sauce. A rolled stuffed dish called Pollo Ripieno ($20) starts with a chicken breast that's stuffed with prosciutto, mozzarella, spinach and mushrooms. It's served with a creamy cognac sauce. Veal dishes shine, including a classic pounded and breaded bone-in chop ($32). One night, lamb porterhouse ($38) was on the specials board. Think of T-bone steak, and you'll get the idea of this cut. It's served in two pieces and grilled. The only disappointment was another special: a way-too-fatty grilled Delmonico steak ($28). It's a fatty cut to begin with, but this was almost inedible.
Cianciullo's background in the restaurant business shows in every way at Lucca. Guests are promptly welcomed. Servers glide through the intimate, 65-seat dining room. Tables are granite-topped. Wooden chairs are comfortably large. Backup staff refill water glasses, pour wine and remove dishes. On two visits, we were served by the same waiter, who knew everything about the menu and the moderately priced wine list. Portion sizes are generous, but not so large to become unappealing.
Lucca also attracts a nice cross section of diners, from young couples out for date night to groups of middle-aged friends coming together to break bread at the same time every week. Some linger. Some rush.
Plan on staying long enough to sample Cianciullo's house-made ricotta cheesecake ($7) and an exquisite chocolate panna cotta ($7). He makes the tiramisu ($7), as well.
Lucca is the kind of neighborhood Italian restaurant I'd like to clone and bring to my neighborhood. And to think I got here almost by accident.
3311 N. Ocean Blvd., Fort Lauderdale
Hours: Dinner Tuesday-Sunday; opens Mondays starting in November
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Beer and wine
Sound level: Moderate
Outside smoking: Yes
For kids: Highchairs
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: On the street