Every once in a while, I forget about the hot dogs and just go with the flow. Yesterday was one of those days. I got an email from the folks at 451 Marketing. They wanted to invite me and some other folks from the Boston Food Bloggers community out to Lucia Ristorante at 13 Mount Vernon Street in downtown Winchester to sample some reworked menu items from new chef Pino Maffeo. Owner Donato Frattaroli wanted to showcase his restaurant and his new rustic Italian fare; me and my fellow foodies were happy to oblige.
We started with a crisp and fruity Pino Grigio as guests gathered and shared their stories. I spoke with Donato and his son. They’ve been successfully running Lucia since 1977 and they are constantly striving to improve their elegant old school Italian menu. The family emphasizes fresh ingredients, from the freshest local produce to seafood that was swimming in the Atlantic less than 24 hours before hitting diners’ plates.
Servers circulated with appetizers as the crowd chatted and noshed. The first round of appetizers was a choice of three bruschettas: broccoli rabe, sauteed mushrooms, and artichoke. All three were fresh, crisp, and heartily flavored.
Next up on the appetizer list were fried oysters with a light sauce. The oysters hail from Island Creek Oysters out of Duxbury. The fried crust had just the right amount of crispiness before the savory oyster burst from within. I had way more than my fair share of these- they were awesome!
What would apps be without scallops in bacon- or in this case, scallops wrapped in pancetta? Now that’s Italian! Everyone knows anything tastes better with bacon, but it’s over the top with pancetta.
The appetizers kept coming. Seared tuna appeared and was promptly devoured. I detected a hint of fennel and Chef Maffeo complemented me on my palate. He seasons the tuna with fennel pollen. It added an earthy dimension to the fish. My new dining companions sampled the pumpkin lanterns at my suggestion. They are an unlikely looking fruit treat.
The next appetizer was a soft shell crab. The key to doing soft shell crab is making sure they aren’t greasy, these were not. Tossed with some peppers and with a hint of a light sauce, these were the best soft shell crabs I have had in a long, long time. The textures were perfect and the crab was fresh- no frozen nonsense here.
In keeping with the seafood theme, next up was a seafood salad. This was served in what looked kind of like an orange juice glass and featured shrimp, crab, lobster, and calamari tossed with watercress, mixed greens, and just a smidgen of lightly seasoned, home made mayonnaise.
Last, but not least, was a traditional antipasto with the most ridiculous salami- it reminded me of the salami we used to get with my grandmother at this little hole in the wall market when we were kids. It was fresh and fantastic, as were the prosciutto and veggies.
The antipasto appetizer kind of brought the meal “back to Italy.” The other apps, while they had a flare of Italian cuisine, were not the traditional apps seen on the menu. Chef Maffeo and Donato Jr. have been collaborating on the new menu for a couple of months. They wanted to use more seafood and be more “aggressive” with the appetizers. Maffeo wanted the appetizer course to be a bit more adventurous and then create twists on rustic Italian classics for the main course dishes. Whatever he wants to call it is fine, I call it delicious.
After the appetizers were cleared away, I felt like I’d already eaten a full meal, but there was more to come. We switched over to Red wine and eagerly awaited the main courses.
First up was the pasta course. The pasta tasted so fresh, I asked if it was home made. It is, just not at Lucia Ristorante! The Frattarolis have their pasta flown in from Naples. It may have traveled far to get to the table, but it tasted like grandma just made it. The tomato sauce, like everything else so far, was light and fresh.
Next up was some more seafood: salmon on a bed of white beans. The salmon was cooked perfectly- the fish flaked off with a fork and was moist and flavorful. The white beans added a good texture while providing a mild but robust contrast to the piquant fish.
A Frutti DiMare style risotto was up next. I don’t usually order risotto when dining out because most cooks can’t seem to get it right. Chef Maffeo did. The risotto was properly moist while still retaining a little al dente consistency (Chef Ramsay would be proud). The seafood on top included shrimp, clams, mussels, and scallops. All fresh, all scrumptious.
The final entree of the meal was a Pork Cacciatore made with pork tenderloin still on the bone! The pork was slow cooked for 6 hours and had a rich flavor. The meat practically dissolved in my mouth. Other than the oysters, it was the one item I went back for seconds for. I spoke with Giovanni Parrinello from Giovanni Veal, he supplies meats to Lucia Ristorante. The bone on pork tenderloin was a special request for tonight, I hope they continue cutting the meat this way- it’s fantastic.
Certainly after all the appetizers and dishes, there couldn’t be more- but I was wrong! Our waitress brought a tray of mousse squares. These chocolate and strawberry mousse mini cakes were rich and satisfying and were the perfect compliment to a good, hot espresso.
While we sipped our coffe and nibbled our desserts, Frank Zarba serenaded us with some operatic tunes. Frank has some good pipes and sings in the restaurant on Friday nights. He favored the intimate crowd with “Time to Say Goodnight,” “Danny Boy,” and “O Solo Mio.” The guy has a velvet throat, he can really sing.
As he was finishing up his tunes, the final treat of the night arrived- a fruit plate with yellow watermelon, cherries, pears, pineapple, strawberries, and blueberries. The fruit, just like everything else at Lucia Ristorante, was fresh.
This was one of the best meals I have had in years. Too many Italian restaurants try to be too pretentious with their food. The fare at Lucia Ristorante was elegant, yet the food oozed simplicity. The concept of keeping rustic Italian classics as simple and fresh as they should be is very artfully done by Chef Pino Matteo. His “adventurous” appetizers added some flair to the table without overshadowing the main dishes. The presentations were rustic too. The food looked good on the plates and there was some real thought and care put into how it came to the table.
It’s clear the Frattaroli’s and Chef Maffeo are passionate about the food, but they also exude a family-like warmth to their patrons. Frattaroli family patriarch Donato Sr., who self deprecatingly refers to himself as the dishwasher, greeted each diner individually and thanked us all for coming. It is us who should have thanked him for a wonderful evening and a sumptuous meal. I will be back, maybe next time I will try the North End location. The Hotdogman DEFINITELY gives Lucia Ristorante TWO THUMBS UP!