For a city whose dining scene was once distinguished principally by an over-stuffed sandwich, Pittsburgh has come a long way. Chefs have filled delicious ethnic niches from African to South American, endeavoring to use authentic ingredients and techniques. The only dining experience still on serious shortage is outdoors. Even in Pittsburgh's iffy weather, outdoor dining is glorious.
Lucca, an Italian institution on South Craig Street, sets a marvelous example. Its raised terrace, ornamented with wrought-iron work, mosaics and fountains, offers some of the most gracious dining in the city. And with the addition of heat lamps in cooler temps and a deep awning to shelter diners from sun and rain, its pleasures are almost weather-proof.
In this little paradise, Lucca's menu features an updated, pan-Italian selection focused on pastas and seafood, with very little in the way of red-sauce standards or the Northern Italian clichés of the '80s.
Beef carpaccio, a timeless dish of paper-thin raw beef tenderloin lightly dressed, was both simple and sophisticated. Meltingly tender meat was enriched with olive oil, dappled with nutty shaved parmesan and brightened with just a sprinkling of capers, while peppery baby arugula provided some counterpoint. Tuna tartare, however, was less carefully prepared. The buttery tuna was of very high quality, but the sweet "tomato oil" that was drizzled on the plate reminded a dining companion of ketchup.
Salads were sized to share — larger than typical sides, but smaller than might satisfy for an entrée. Again, we found the quality of ingredients excellent, but the dressings less satisfactory; this time, the problem was in the amounts. A simple arugula salad had so little garlic oil that it was almost dry, while a field-greens salad was nearly drowned in a jammy berry vinaigrette. Despite this, this salad's crisp, tart apple and sweet, crunchy pecans balanced each other well.
"Lucca pizza," topped with basil pesto, plum tomatoes, mozzarella and arugula, and offered as an appetizer, was practically perfect. The crust was chewy without a hint of sogginess, and the pesto bold beneath a suitable layer of creamy cheese, sweet-tart tomatoes and a mound of spicy greens.
About half of Lucca's dozen or so entrees appear under the "Pasta" heading, but only two of the "Piatti Principali" actually feature noodles. One was the frutti di mare con penne. Unlike the more typical pot of myriad shellfish known as frutti, this dish limited itself to plump, firm shrimp and shredded crab over penne in a spicy basil-tomato sauce. The sauce had just enough kick to play nicely with the seafood, and the sweet crab offered some counterbalance.
Goat-cheese ravioli were sold out, so we chose instead salmon over linguine in pesto. The pesto itself was superb — vibrantly green, herbal and garlicky — but the salmon, which appeared to have been broiled, came already broken up and tasted a touch overdone. Whether it had broiled too long or got an unwelcome reheat when tossed with the pasta, it was an unfortunate misstep in an otherwise sound dish.
Pappardelle with sweet sausage and fresh peas in a tomato-basil cream sauce showed off both the fresh produce of the season and Lucca's house-made pasta. These pappardelle were perfectly, tenderly al dente. They were the ideal vehicles for the mild yet deeply flavorful combination of ingredients in the sauce.
Such a traditional Italian meal called for a traditional dessert: tiramisu. There are probably as many different recipes for this Italian classic as there are Italian kitchens. Lucca's was in the firm camp, with cakelike ladyfingers and sturdy custard.
With tables this inviting, not to mention a location in the beating heart of Oakland's university and museum district, Lucca could probably get away with a workmanlike rehashing of the Italian-American cuisine of yesteryear. But Lucca's simple menu is both classic and up-to-date, its preparations are most frequently skillful, and even its interior dining room is lovely on those nights when Pittsburgh winters must drive us indoors.