41 Bogard St., Downtown
Serving dinner and late night, daily
Price: Moderate ($16-$19)
It started with the "priest stranglers," these little twisted guys bathed in cheese fondue and spiked with onion cooked down until it transformed into vegetable honey. Crispy bits of cured pork jowl floated across the top of the pile, and I knew it was a bowl from heaven. Now I can't stop. I keep going back. For the Sunday dinner with the family, or when my wife wants a romantic night out, we head to Bogard Street, to one of the best Italian restaurants Charleston has ever seen.
For a man who made his name serving opulent cuisine to the new urban elites on Daniel Island, and before that headlining The Woodlands, Ken Vedrinski and his new trattoria seem strangely out of place on Bogard Street. But there he is, hauling fish or produce from a delivery van parked on a side street that would still be recognizable to Porgy and Bess, as would the soulful cuisine derived from the roots of Italian poverty. Lucca's is the food of the poor, spirited across the Atlantic on the wings of century-old immigrations, translated from the old country to the new, but now ripped from the tables of French finery, placed back into the context from which it was birthed, accessible to the common man beneath a slogan that translates: "in the mouth of the wolf."
Trattoria Lucca renders Italy and her people as real rather than exotic, and thus fits in with its humble surroundings. This is Bogard Street after all, not necessarily known for its upscale shopping, day spas, or burgeoning arts scene. As much as it's the wolf's den, it's also a colorful bazaar of humanity, full of vitality — college students, bohemians, and the urban poor mingle together. Sit in the front window and imagine the streets of Brooklyn, or the scruffy immigrant enclaves of the old North End in Boston or San Francisco. Taste flavors straight from the proverbial boat, still singing melodies of blind romance.
Life streams by the diners who sit behind the big glass windows where steaming plates of pasta are passed along the tables. The essence of conviviality reverberates into the night. You can smell the place down the street as the aroma of the plates (none costing more than $20) wafts out the door.
The selection of verdure ($18 for all of them) could easily feed two over a bottle of wine. The bitter back notes of grilled Treviso balance the richness of shaved pecorino, while fresh artichokes stand like little flowers, anointed with the pungent essence of lemon and olive oil. Sheaves of asparagus spears are topped with a local egg and sprinkles of crispy pancetta. Paper-thin slices of golden beet (from undoubtedly the biggest beets you've ever seen) come dressed with vinegar, citrus, and pickled garlic, the bite of dried chilies barely perceptible in the background.
These are plates to be shared. Cheeses are chosen for quality rather than price point and dished up in admirable quantity. At most places where a plate of five cheeses runs you $20, you won't get half the stuff Vedrinski tosses out, and you certainly won't get it embellished with such an expert hand. They are perfectly aged, the robiola weeping from beneath the rind, held back only by a few slivers of pear, or perhaps a bit of marinated fennel, some toasted hazelnuts providing textural contrast. A semi-firm goat cheese dances with figs and vin cotto, an orgy of earth and sugar. If you must eat a cliché, the buffalo mozzarella with local Owl's Nest Farm tomatoes might be the most inspired rendition of insalata caprese ever tasted — one of those dishes that confirm the genius of the original and the immorality of cheap imitation.
Dinner plates stalk you; one could order two and still pay less than the average check on lower East Bay. Primi plates need to come in half portions, because you'll stuff yourself with those gorgeous strozzapreti (the "priest-stranglers" run $16) and chewy little gnudi ($17), which I find a bit over-sauced but delicious nonetheless. It's wise to leave room for other fare.
Bowls of seafood pasta overflow with a medley of the sea. Baby octopus and shrimp squirm amid calamarata, pasta rings shaped like the namesake squid, all of it bathed in a fresh tomato sauce. Like most things honestly Italian, the simplicity and purity of the flavors sing through. It's the freshness of the fish and caring hand of a chef who takes delivery himself in the little alley beside the kitchen.
Go on a Sunday afternoon and you will be rewarded with chance to eat the "family meal" ($34), more food than you ever stuffed down at Grandma's, basically half the menu splayed out before your party, big platters of sliced hanger steak and mashed potatoes spiked with olive oil and little mushrooms seared and then soaked in a sweet and sour marinade.
Roasted vegetables and creamy farro accompany Lucca's chicken "mattone," a delicious nod to the Etruscan origins of its namesake, and a method that produces a perfectly crusted skin and juicy interior. Platter after platter appears, pork chops smothered in tomatoes and cheese, perhaps some local fish, all delicious.
In a city where most people I talk to can rarely afford to eat at our "best" places, Lucca is for everyone. The wine list is brimming with many of the great values that I routinely buy to drink at home — The most expensive bottle is $50. Enthusiastic, welcoming service greets patrons dressed down or up. There are young kids, college dates, business people, and some of the more notable chefs around town sneaking out of their own restaurants on a slow night for a taste.
In a time when new restaurants will struggle, in a neighborhood that most would think a laughable place to put a new business, Ken Vedrinski forges ahead with a new vision. He has wandered from the path and left the safety of the established wisdom. He's remade Grandma's house where they needed her most.
Crepi il Lupo, Lucca!