Luca and Lola Sema met as teenagers in Albania before moving to Cleveland in 1998, where they were frequent guests at Ponte Vecchio. When that restaurant and its replacement, Viaduct Lounge, shuttered, the Semas jumped at the opportunity to reinvent the space as Luca (2100 Superior Viaduct, 216-862-2761, lucacleveland.com), their take on Northern Italian fine dining.
Luca began cooking in Albania, but it was after moving to Italy in 1994 that he entered the restaurant world. In the U.S., he worked in restaurant kitchens by night and factories by day. He landed at Valerio's in Little Italy before helping to open Osteria downtown and eventually making his way back to Little Italy to work at Michaelangelo's. A stint in Spanish cooking added to his skill set.
Lola, who made wine with her family from the tender age of 8, earned a sommelier certificate here in the States. Listed below are the best — and best-selling — food and wine pairings.
Luca's most popular dishes:
Sacchetti al Tartufo Bianco consists of fresh pasta purses stuffed with white truffle, 24-month aged pecorino Romano, 20-month aged Parmigiano Reggiano and ricotta cheeses. The dish is finished with white truffle cream sauce and aged fig balsamic. The dish, says Lola, was a happy accident.
"Luca was making a soup that was exactly like truffle cream sauce and he just threw it on the pasta. The aged balsamic adds a sweetness and the truffle adds a creaminess."
It's a date-night regular, say Luca and Lola. It's become so beloved, in fact, that it was reclassified as a regular menu item from its original spot on the "specials" menu.
Lola suggests pairing the dish with a super Tuscan. "They don't have a lot of fruit and they're bold enough, but won't overpower," she says.
Ossobuco di Cinghiale, or wild boar osso buco, is slow-roasted for four and a half hours, with the tender meat served on top of fettuccine with a side of julienned carrots and onions.
"People are open to wild boar because they're experimenting more now; they like different," Lola says.
To pair with the dish, Lola suggests a brunello. "It's chocolatey and bold and goes well with such a strong, heavy dish."
The chef's favorite dish:
Lobster Risotto features a whole cold-water lobster tail on a bed of saffron-scented lobster risotto.
Luca wasn't always a fan of saffron, but when he started working at a Spanish-influenced restaurant, he began to use it more. "Now it's become one of my favorite spices," he says. "I like to use saffron because of the rich color and flavor it brings to a dish. The reddish paprika on top of saffron risotto is a good example of making a dish look as good as it tastes."
And when it comes to the right wine to pair with his favorite dish?
"My favorite wine is whatever Lola tells me goes well with my dishes!" says Luca, a wise man indeed.