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Lucca's staff generates innovative ideas for dishes

| Sunday, May 6, 2012, 6:32 p.m.

A late-summer dinner at Lucca makes for a most enjoyable evening.

With stifling heat and humidity gone, the heavily shaded patio at the South Craig Street restaurant is a lovely spot to enjoy the inventive, fresh creations of executive chef Steven Thompson, co-chef Roger Seanor and their talented staff.

"When the farmers come we take what we ordered, but then I go through the truck and say 'What else do you have?' and I try to incorporate them into our plans. It's a lot of fun, too, especially when you're handed things you don't use very often."

Thompson says he encourages his staff to contribute ideas and gives credit to them for coming up with at least a few of Lucca's menu staples. The menu changes substantially every day, but a selection of diners' favorites remain constant on the menu.

We had a difficult time deciding on starters -- and we could have opted for a tasting from the Antipasti menu of three small appetizer portions for $13. But, we instead gravitated toward the field-fresh salads and soups which are anything but ordinary. We loved the Spring Valley Farm Arugula ($8) salad, filled with roasted peppers, portobello mushrooms, balsamic Cipollini onions with a roasted tomato vinaigrette; and the Gazpacho ($5), bursting with fresh tomato flavors along with chives, cucumber and a topping of creme fraiche. We chose the Heirloom Tomato Salad ($7), thinking this might be our last chance to sample the summery flavor of red and yellow tomatoes, but Thompson assures the tomatoes will be available most likely until the first week of October. The thick slices of tomato sandwiched a smoky grilled onion and was topped with a scattering of sprouts and drizzles of a delicate and sweet Villa Manodori balsamic vinegar -- much less tart than other balsamics we've tasted -- and basil-infused olive oil. Served with slices of armentizia cheese -- a drier, easily crumbled white cheese -- this starter is the clear favorite. A simple Melon and Prosciutto ($8) starter was sweet honeydew wrapped with thin strips of prosciutto served with balsamic reduction sauce.

Penne D'Abruzzo ($26) has a permanent place on Lucca's menu -- and for good reason. We love a spicy sauce on pasta -- especially one such as this, a tomato basil blend with cream. Add to that tiger prawns and large bites of lump crab and you have a pasta dish that is simple yet unusual, and something we'll want to have again.

Roasted Pork Tenderloin ($25) was another standout -- tender slices of pork sharing a plate with purple sticky rice, asparagus and a plum-hoisin reduction. Our only disappointment was that it didn't arrive with the grilled peaches mentioned in the menu's description.

Fish and seafood are dominant forces on Lucca's menu, so in addition to the seafood pasta, we tried the Sauteed Loup de Mer ($25), thick fillets of wolf fish delicately seasoned and served with pearl pasta enhanced with creamy mascarpone, slender haricot verts, and tomato caper and garlic wine sauce. Other offerings the night we dined were a Sesame Salmon ($22), Grilled Swordfish ($26) and a first-course serving -- or small plate, depending on your point of view -- of Seared Sea Scallops ($12) served with potato gnocchi.

We also tried the Rendered Duck Breast ($24) served with the unusual but successful pairing of a cake of pecan spoon bread and a cucumber noodle with the aforementioned Villa Manodori balsamic.

Desserts are all made on the premises, and we enjoyed each. A Cheese Plate ($7) is a selection of premium cheeses -- the composition of the plate changes nightly. We also indulged our love of chocolate with the Chocolate Cake ($7) a dense "fallen-souffle"-like creation served with a berry sauce that also frequently changed depending upon what berries are fresh that day. Chocolate Mocha Pots de Creme ($7) was a petite cup of smooth and silky coffee-infused chocolate, topped with gratings of white chocolate and served alongside two small snickerdoodles. Our favorite, though, was the Apple Tart ($7), a welcome taste of fall and one of the best apple desserts we've had in the city.

We're told the patio stays open until people no longer want to eat there -- heaters keep the nip out of the air during the fall -- and it often stays open into November. With the promise of more surprising creations by Thompson and company, we definitely plan to make this a stop to fill in on our autumn calendar. Additional Information:

Details

Lucca

Cuisine: European-inspired, northern Italian

Entree price range: $20 to $29.

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. Monday through Friday; 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 4:30 to 9 p.m. Sunday.

Notes: Reservations suggested. Full bar available. Smoking at bar only. Major credit cards accepted. Outdoor dining available.

Location: 317 S. Craig St., Oakland.

Details: 412-682-3310.

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