People who say you can never have too much of a good thing just haven't tried hard enough.
It's Saturday night -- technically Sunday morning, but not by much -- and I am lying on my back in the middle of my living room, all the lights out, with my arms and legs splayed like a man carelessly run down and left for dead by an out-of-control mathematical proof that one person most certainly can have too much of a good thing. My belly is bloated over the top of my favorite party jeans. And I smell bad, like something a pig found buried in an alley behind a wine bar, like overpriced Italian Chianti, cigarettes and the intoxicating, powerful and dirty funk of truffles.
White truffles, specifically. Good ones. Not quite as strong and a little less delicate than their black cousins, but still powerful stuff. If a mushroom junkie were to break into my house right now and sniff me, he could probably tell exactly what variety of truffles I'd overindulged in -- white Piedmont, black Umbrian, you name it -- because the stink is oozing from my pores and rolling off me in waves. But I live in a good neighborhood now, not the kind of place where roving gangs of unemployed fungologists go around breaking into people's houses, so I am confident that I'll be left alone with my misery.
Hour s: 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
Prosciutto di San Daniele:
Octopus: $8 Bresaola: $8
Lobster fra diavola: $11
Wild boar pappardelle: $8
Potato gnocchi: $10
Chicken piccata: $17
Rabbit, three ways: $18
It was the "rabbit, three ways" at Luca d'Italia that did this to me.
No, that's not fair. It was me that did this to me. It was me eating at least part of each of the eleven courses that came my way previous to the rabbit that did it. But it was the rabbit that put me over the edge. Had chef/owner Frank Bonanno and his team of white-coated pushers in the kitchen chosen to serve rabbit just one way, I would have been fine. Two ways? I still might have made my way to bed without collapsing into a moaning, evil-smelling lump in the middle of the living room. But three ways was simply one way too many.
The game had been to get my mom to eat three weird things -- three things she'd never eaten before and would probably never even consider eating under normal circumstances -- before the dessert menus hit the table. It would be fun, I figured. My folks are not reckless eaters. Never have been, probably never will be. They are solid, upstanding suburban omnivores, fully satisfied for years with the classic meat-and-potatoes American diet before recently giving that up for on-again/off-again vegetarianism. And even this was a radical departure for them, so when we talk on the phone, they are sometimes justifiably confused and horrified by the things that I eat. And even more so that someone pays me to do it. Well, he didn't learn it from us, I can sometimes hear my mom telling her friends when I write about eating fish eyes or deer penis. I had no intention of having them eat anything that strange, just something new. Something different. This was their vacation -- their first trip out to Denver to visit me, the prodigal son now made good as a restaurant critic -- and I wanted them to have a memorable meal.
Which was why I chose the seven-month-old Luca for our big dinner out: Frank Bonanno doesn't cook anything that's not memorable.
Bonanno is obsessed. We've spent hours on the phone gabbing about nothing but fish. Or liver. We like a lot of the same restaurants, are pissed off by a lot of the same chefs. He cooked for me (while I was disguised in a rubber Nixon mask and blaze-orange tuxedo) earlier this year at a Steel Chef competition, laughing maniacally as he put out plate after plate of stunning grub and soundly trouncing his challenger. Bonanno is one of the good guys -- a serious, old-school restaurant lifer not made for doing anything else, totally mad for ingredients, bonkers over high-quality product, and crazy for prep and recipes that showcase these at their best.
What's more, he's fearless. Unafraid to take risks and put things he loves on his menus that maybe no one in his right mind would pay money to eat.
Lucky for him, there are plenty of diners in Denver these days fully in their wrong minds. Luckier still, I'm one of them. Even luckier than that, I'd brought guests.
Luca's menu is designed for gluttonous abandon, arranged for wild flights of pairing and sharing, set up in an attempt to make people eat the way the Italians do -- with several courses of small plates leading up to the entrees. The portions are small, the plating simple, the combinations divine. If you absolutely refuse to eat the way they want you to, they will do it your way, right away, just like Burger King. But the house won't be happy about it.
To begin, an amuse from the kitchen that set the tone for the night and gave us -- my parents, my wife and me -- something to nibble on while we perused the short, compact wine list and sprawling menu. At first look, the amuse was just an open-faced egg-salad sandwich. Only it wasn't, because egg-salad sandwiches are soggy things that moms make on chewy white bread with the crusts cut off. This, on the other hand, was egg and truffled mayonnaise mounded up on a crusty, toasted piece of bruschetta. It was not the kind of thing you give your kid to eat while he sits on the couch watching Thundar the Barbarian cartoons on TV, but it was exactly what you want brought to your table by a young, well-educated waiter (okay, he pronounced bruschetta as "broosketti," but that's forgivable in a restaurant where almost every menu description has at least one misspelling) while you sit in an abstractedly hip dining room burning under the nuclear glow of the orange-on-orange walls, hung with orange-on-orange art (courtesy of Bonanno's partner, Doug Fleischmann, who died in a car accident this summer), trying to eavesdrop on all of the conversations around you as the two- and four-tops crowding the joint swoon over some dishes, puzzle over others. It was grown-up comfort food, done simply and with a weird sense of humor. It was Bonanno through and through.
Antipasti arrived with a flourish and a quick juggling of plates, glasses and silver. This was when I got my mother to eat octopus. Although she'd tried calamari before, octopus was something new, and Luca's braised, marinated and grilled octopus had about as much in common with some strip-mall trattoria calamari as a scallop does with a marshmallow. Here, this straight Sicilian plate came with two meaty tentacles, suckers still attached, that had been beaten ("I saw it on Iron Chef," says Bonanno), bruised, braised in white wine with Italian mirepoix and cork, then marinated for two days before being flash-grilled and curled lovingly over a pile of white beans drizzled in lemon verbena vinaigrette. Octopi are all muscle (which means they're almost totally edible), but our guy must have been the Schwarzenegger of his peer group, because the fat ends of his tentacles were bigger around than my thumb. They were a little springy on the teeth, sure, but a bite that included bean, oil and tender octopus all together had a wonderful texture and a taste as non-threatening as the mildest white fish. The only trouble was that the tips of the tentacles had gotten overdone in the process of cooking the rest perfectly. They were pleasantly crunchy at first, but once the crunch was gone it was like chewing a mouthful of erasers.
We passed the octopus around, pushing the overcooked bits off to one side, then chased that plate with some of Luca's house-cured bresaola -- paper-thin slices of dark, meaty, salted filet mounded up with baby spinach, split black figs sweet as candy and sparks of bright, bittersweet balsamic vinaigrette. After that, there were meatballs -- a light mix of veal, pork and beef cut with fresh bread and cooked rare, then bathed in a thin red tomato gravy and topped with two or three fine slivers of Peccorino romano -- and prosciutto di San Daniele, which arrived as a wonderful mess of wispy prosciutto dampened with extra-virgin olive oil, fresh mozzarella that the kitchen makes itself, chiffonade basil and strips of roasted-by-hand red pepper that were so much better than the greasy little worms of red bell you get out of the can that they made me want to find the closest pepper canner and punch him in the neck. See? This is what peppers are supposed to taste like!
And when the waiter came around to clear our plates and reached for the prosciutto, I felt an almost uncontrollable urge to poke him in the hand with my fork. We'd left some scraps and squid ends on the other plates, and I had no problem with those being taken away -- but my prosciutto wasn't going anywhere. I kept it next to me like a close friend for the rest of the meal, picking at it and running my finger through the oil whenever there was nothing else in front of me to eat.
My mother had never tasted wild boar before. Now she has, and I hope she flaunts it to her friends back home, because while being an adventurous eater might get you strange looks in the McCarthyian suburbs where I grew up, it's a badge of honor in the world where I live now. And I'm proud of her, because the only comment she had on Luca's wild boar pappardelle Bolognese was that it wasn't strange enough.
"I don't know, Jay," she said (and to get the full effect, you have to imagine this coming from a tiny woman with a sweet voice, but an accent just a little more nasal than the sort you hear in Minnesota). "I don't know, but I just expected more, ya know? You eat something like wild boar and you expect it to be kinda different."
But it's not, really. Wild boar is a bit gamier than regular pork, but pork itself is generally so mild that a so-called wild pig's meat is more deeply flavored only by degrees. Plus, this wild boar was leg meat, ground, seared off, then stewed with a tomato mirepoix, garlic, fennel and red wine, thickened with cream and juiced with butter, which conspired to further mute its essential oddness.
Following the wild boar around the table were three more tasting portions of pasta. The first, a spaghetti carbonara, was disappointing. The noodles swam in a simple yolk-thickened Peccorino romano-butter sauce that lacked any definition other than the minute, crackly pieces of pork-cheek guanciale pancetta that studded it like fatty, salted Rice Crispies. It wasn't bad, but there wasn't a lot to it. The spicy lobster fra diavola, on the other hand, was truly great, with a sweet red sauce kicked up sharply by crushed red-chile flakes, fat chunks of stewed tomato, and big pieces of buttery lobster-claw meat twisted up in a bed of angel-hair pasta (one of the few pastas in the house that come from DiCecco, and not from the hands of the cooks). The only thing missing was an East Coast address and that ineffable something that comes with it.
The potato gnocchi with crabmeat and lobster sauce was fantastic regardless of address, all my Big Apple bias aside. I used to spend three hours every day hand-making and fork-crimping thousands of gnocchi for one of those New York restaurants I'm always on about, and I can honestly say that this kitchen could've whipped my ass without even trying. The gnocchi were perfect -- tender and mushy, but with just enough integrity to stay solid in a rich, velvety brown sauce that was made with absolutely criminal amounts of butter. Add to that a generous portion of flaked back-fin crabmeat so sweet and fresh and gently handled that it tasted like the crabs had been pulled fresh from the ocean and delivered to the kitchen by time warp five minutes before we ordered, and this was a matchless dish, a plate without equal anywhere in town. (As a matter of fact, if you happen to be reading this review from death row and are stuck for what to order as a last meal, tell the guards to call Luca and have a double order sent over right away. That's what I'd do, anyhow.)
We had salads next, most notably a plate of warm artichoke hearts, shaved parmesan and field greens dressed in truffle oil that played nicely with the nutty taste of the 'chokes, the hard sourness of the cheese and the slightly bitter fresh-cut-lawn flavor of the greens but quickly became overpowering. With each successive bite, it seemed that a dark, woody, oily fog was growing around our table. It smelled like fresh rain in a thick forest and what the earth's armpits would smell like if the earth had armpits.
We survived the salad, though, and moved on to our entrees: a plate of massive fresh-water Thai prawns in an emulsion of white wine, white vinegar, garlic, oil and (you guessed it) even more butter. Each crustacean was roughly the size of something that would attack Cleveland in a Saturday-afternoon monster movie. That was followed by a castrated version of chicken picatta that had the strange effect of leaving us feeling incomplete after each bite. The egg batter was soft and silky, the chicken supple and sweetened by the lemon-heavy sauce, and the capers added a sharp, salty tang to the mix. But just when you expected the tastes to go further, they stopped. Something was missing: The flavor was all top-note, all high, singing melody, with no bass line to keep it in check. It was the boy band of the chicken-picatta universe.
And then the rabbit entered the picture, and the flavors got deep. Very deep.
The truffle is some powerful line-cook hoodoo, the uranium of the culinary world. Like atomic energy, once its power is harnessed, it must be used with monkish discretion -- rarely, delicately and never without a damn good reason. Luca's kitchen had a damn good reason for using truffles: I'd ordered the rabbit, three ways, off the entree menu, and nothing goes with rabbit quite the way truffle does. It gives life back to the lowly lapin, lends the mellow flavor of bunny a deep and earthy context, and can put such a kick in a dish that you might still be tasting it two or three days later. And here the kitchen used the truffle with all necessary discretion, adding it with a light hand to the tiny confit foreleg and big, tender, juicy back thigh; using it to jack up the slivers of cremini, shiitake and porcini mushroom mixed into the small pile of braised and shredded rabbit meat in the center of the plate; blending the truffle oil into the reduced braising liquid that made the rabbit gravy, then leaving the thin, sweet, fanned slices of grilled loin mercifully untouched.
The rabbit was excellent in all of its three ways, the true star of the table. I got my mom to try some, too, and though she took only a dainty, reluctant nibble of her third new thing of the night, she did it. Game over, and good for her. I kept eating it, though, and I would pay for my excesses later. As I said, the effect of truffle is cumulative. It builds until you reach a point where all you can taste and all you can smell is the musky perfume. Like durian fruit, it gets into your hair and clothes. It works its way into your pores. It hangs with you like Superglue.
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Lying here on the floor, surrounded by the stink of voracious consumption, I accept that I've had more truffle in one night than any human should consume in a year, maybe a lifetime, and have crammed myself to the larynx with more heavy, wonderful Italian food than can possibly be healthy. The room is heaving a little. I'm finding it difficult to take deep breaths, and I wonder if I may yet become the first-ever victim of terminal, truffle-induced narcosis.
In this line of work, I have many friends. There's Pepto and there's Pepcid; there's Advil for the hangovers and Tums for my tummy. At times, there's been Compazine. Antibiotics. Imodium and ipecac syrup. But my best friend of all is a little bag of ting ting jahe ginger bonbons that I picked up at the Japanese grocery. For times like this -- times when I have exceeded my gross physical volume by dangerous levels and indulged too fervently in what would, in smaller doses, be considered a very good thing -- the ginger candies are the only things that get me through the night. They settle the stomach marvelously, can cut through nearly any aftertaste, and while they're not going to do anything about the smell of truffles and rabbit and bloat still lingering around me, at least my breath will be sweet when my wife finds me dead in the morning.
But you know what? I don't regret a bite. This world is full of fence-sitters, middle-of-the-roaders, abstentious temperate fellows for whom a little is always enough, and I will not go down as one of their number. I say everything in excess. I say moderation is for pussies and Mormons. You can never really have too much of a good thing.
And I think Bonanno and I are on the same page with that.