For quite some time now, DC area residents have rejoiced over a burgeoning restaurant industry. Not so welcome, however, are the slowly rising menu prices. Fabio Trabocchi is an anomaly among his peers. The chef and restauranteur opened Casa Luca this past summer as an “accessible” alternative to his more upscale trattoria, Fiola. The menu at his new osteria represents the simpler delicacies of Italian cuisine at more reasonable (though still not cheap) prices. Trabocchi chose decor elements from his hometown in Le Marche, a region in central Italy along the Adriatic coast, to create a warmer environment than the space’s former tenant, British gastropub Againn. He curated a menu that encourages sharing in the tradition of Le Marche, with piccoletti (small plates), antipasti, salumi, formaggi, pastas offered in half and full portions and family-style entrees. Mr. Green Bean and I arrived at Casa Luca primed to share an indulgent evening with our friends Mr. and soon-to-be Mrs. Potato Salad (I’m told to pronounce their name with a Fonzie-esk, Italian-American accent).
Wine was the first item on the agenda, this was a Friday night after all. Casa Luca’s wine menu makes it easy to keep the vino flowing. A selection of quality Italian varieties are offered at $28/bottles or $12/glass (who’s not going to order the bottle?). We began with a Sangiovese as we perused the menu. I was well aware before arriving that Casa Luca offers gluten-free pasta. One would assume, therefore, that the staff would be proficient in attending to gluten-free diners. Yet, I found myself faced with a blank stare as I probed our server for some guidance with the menu’s gluten-free offerings and suggested pasta preparations. The kitchen stocks both rice and corn based pastas (not house-made like their wheat counterparts). When I asked our server why they offer both and which one he recommends, he hesitated, then shared, “the corn is chewier and more popular.”
Our server agreeably made repeat trips to the kitchen to discover what else I could eat. The meatball appetizer contains breadcrumbs (disappointing but not surprising); the salsa romesco in the lobster crudo antipasti contains breadcrumbs (somewhat surprising); and as we discovered later on, the affogato on the dessert menu also contains breadcrumbs (um, surprising!). With the server’s help and some compromise on my part, I muscled together a safe and mouth-watering order, sharing the misticanza of winter citrus salad and salumi with the table, a modified lobster crudo and roasted cauliflower side with soon-to-be Mrs. Potato Salad (she’ll lose the pesky prefix in April), and a half portion of the oxtail ragù with corn pasta to be shared with no one.
First to arrive was a wooden plank filled with a generous serving of sliced meats and a small cup of olives. Mr. Green Bean and Mr. Potato Salad quickly notice the absence of accompanying bread and were pointed to the breads listed on the menu for an additional charge. The men ordered grilled Italian toast, lest they should have to eat their meats without a crusty base. The table guzzled the meatballs while I shared my winter salad, packed with leafy greens, radishes, grapefruit, Mandarin orange, green apple, red grapes, pomegranate seeds, and pistachios. The dressing was light and the salad refreshing, though a bit schizophrenic.
Our lobster crudo with pickled vegetables and toasted hazelnuts was prepared with a barely noticeable pesto sauce instead of the glutenous salsa romesco. The lobster was plentiful and fresh, though slightly overpowered by the vegetables spiced with cloves like a man doused in too much cologne. The roasted cauliflower side with pine nuts and parsley was cooked perfectly, florets peeling apart with the encouragement of the fork. They sat on a creamy puree, adding a textural juxtaposition. I did miss the sweet punch of golden raisins that the menu promised but our dish seemed to lack.
My bowl of corn pasta with oxtail ragù was filled with large pieces of tender, slow-cooked meat, and a deep red tomato sauce, sans pine nuts and golden raisins the menu described (raisin shortage perhaps?). A little fatty for my taste, the ragù had a deliciously rich flavor, disguising any characteristic qualities (for better or worse) of the almost too al dente corn pasta. I give the kitchen credit for not crossing over into mushy pasta territory, all too easy with gluten-free varieties. I’d rather crunchy to gooey any day.
We were all sufficiently stuffed, and I had more red meat in me than I’d had in weeks. But that didn’t stop us from another bottle of red and a look at the dessert menu. We confirmed that the panna cotta was gluten-free and placed our order with a few extra scoops of sorbet to go around the table. The cup of thick, creamy, lightly sweetened custard was topped with a tart cherry/strawberry sorbet. Each spoonful tasted sinfully amazing. Our accompanying deep, dark chocolate sorbet lent itself perfectly to double dipping for a combination of flavors that excited every taste bud.
Casa Luca succeeded in bringing friends together for jubilant time over delicious food and drink in a comfortable, relaxed, yet sophisticated environment. Though a few missteps with food preparations and some gluten free education in order, Casa Luca is a wonderful addition to the transforming landscape of Penn Quarter and a noteworthy restaurant among the droves.