I'm not sure how long Luca will last, but I can say that if the new restaurant doesn't survive, it won't be because diners are walking out unhappy. Luca is a brassy, flashy destination restaurant, where excess and immoderation are the bill of fare, and cost is less a concern than contentment. Watch the door at Luca and you'll see diners rolling out a little fatter, a little poorer, and a hell of a lot happier than when they rolled in.
Luca, located in the Superior Viaduct space that once housed Ponte Vecchio and the Viaduct Lounge, inherited the same million-dollar views of the river, lake and downtown skyline that neither of its predecessors could translate into long-term success. After the short-lived Viaduct Lounge confirmed that switching to a casual concept was not the solution to the riddle of the "Old Bridge," new operators have come in and doubled down on the fine-dining approach.
If you've got the balls to charge $45 for a lobster risotto, as Luca does, then it best be impressive. This version is, topped with a perfectly cooked and butterflied whole lobster, with the claw meat fully removed for easy eating. The risotto below is enriched with flavorful lobster stock and nails that ideal consistency of creamy yet firm deliciousness. To be honest, $45 is probably a bargain.
While white tablecloth, fine-dining restaurants are an endangered species, we still need those celebratory restaurants that are worth going out of one's way to experience. Because Superior Viaduct is by definition "out of one's way," only a restaurant worthy of a detour can succeed there. By combining that world-class view with stellar food, wine and service, Luca might manage to pull off what neither of its predecessors could.
Luca is Italian, but not in the red-sauce-and-meatball kind of way. Chef-owner Luca Sema calls it "high-end Northern Italian food," the type of fare a diner might find at Michaelangelo's or Valerio's, both restaurants in which Sema has worked.
For the beef tartare ($15), Sema uses a mild flavored filet mignon, perked up with plump capers, some salt and pepper, and a runny raw egg yolk. It's served with multigrain toasts, but I'd prefer something a little less healthy tasting. You might consider doubling your order of fried artichoke hearts ($14), which arrive looking like a pair of miniature guitars. The sculpted artichokes are stuffed with a light lobster and mascarpone blend, breaded, fried and served atop a fresh tomato sauce.
The only dish that didn't live up to its price tag, we thought, was the piatto di mare – or mixed shellfish ($24). We counted a pair of shrimp, a few mussels and clams, and a handful of calamari rings – but all of it was deftly cooked and served in a flavorful tomato broth. The wide bowl is garnished with the same grilled toasts as in the tartare.
Talk about old school: Before the pan-seared branzino ($25) is deboned tableside, it is presented to the diner in its whole, unadulterated state. When it returns, all that remains is flaky and delicate white fish in a silky lemon, garlic and wine sauce. In chef Sema's hands, a classic dish like saltimbocca ($30) tastes lighter and fresher, with tender bundles of veal, sage and prosciutto nestled into a creamy wine sauce. A firm plank of polenta soaks up the sage-scented sauce, while kale stalks add crunch.
Though the menu doesn't list prices for half orders of pasta, our server said that the practice is accepted and welcome (though neither portion nor price is truly "half"). Dig into the orecchiette ($11.50) and the flavors hit you in waves: first the punch of the broccoli rabe, followed by the fennel in the Italian sausage, and finally the sauce-coated saucers of pasta. The baked ricotta cavatelli ($14), which arrives in a crock straight from the oven, is like a rich man's mac and cheese. Get more than a half order of this and you'll regret it for a week.
Wine lovers are in capable hands here as the chef's wife, Lola, is a trained sommelier, who has assembled a fine list and has the knowledge to recommend a bottle for every palate. Service is professional, but also playful enough to keep things from being oppressively stuffy.
Changes to the space have left it in the best shape of its relatively brief history. Original artwork from Michelangelo, Picasso and others complements the matchless views of Cleveland landmarks, which themselves are framed like artwork by the windows. It's a knockout of a space with food to match. Only time will tell if diners are willing to go out of their way for a delicious, albeit high-priced, meal on an old bridge at the fringes of downtown.