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Dining out

New identity, fresh approach

Lucca Back Bay remains true to classy, modern Italian dishes

Lucca Back Bay House-made tagliatelle, with pieces of confit chicken and pancetta, gets an added flavor boost from preserved lemon, watercress and pistachios. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
By Devra First
Globe Staff / December 30, 2009

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When the Italian restaurant Sasso became Lucca Back Bay a few months ago, here’s what changed: approximately nothing. The location is the same. The restaurant looks the same. The owners are still Ted Kennedy and Matthew and Sean Williams, who also run Lucca in the North End. The menu is largely the same. And the chef is still Anthony Mazzotta.

Which is why Lucca Back Bay warrants another look. When the Globe last reviewed the restaurant, as Sasso, chef David Ross was at the helm. He left shortly thereafter, and Mazzotta took over. He’s worked here and there - you know, little places like French Laundry in California and Per Se in New York, as well as Toro in the South End. And he and his staff make very good food, which they serve till late. The regional emphasis of Mazzotta’s menu changes with the seasons, geared more to the hearty foods of Piedmont and Lombardy in the winter, and shifting toward Umbria and Abruzzo in the spring, Sicily and Calabria in the summer, and Sardinia and Lazio in the fall. It’s an intriguing approach. Yet when people talk Italian food, and people do talk Italian food, this spot on the hotel-heavy stretch of Huntington Avenue seldom comes up.

On some nights, it’s fairly empty. On others, particularly around the holidays, it’s crowded with corporate events and tourists staying at the Marriott or the Colonnade who don’t want to brave freezing temperatures in search of dinner. The room is stately, done up in browns, with giant portraits stretching down from the ceiling miles away. A long marble staircase connects to the upstairs kitchen; it looks like an Escher composition. Off to one side, there’s a bar with a warm, clubby vibe. If I were a businessman who wanted to woo other businessmen, this restaurant would be in my arsenal of secret weapons. It’s classy. And it doesn’t hurt that the bartenders make a good spicy martini, goosed with jalapeno-stuffed olives.

Like the decor, the food here is solid yet modern. Caesar salad becomes insalata di Cesare, and much more dashing for it. Goodbye, stodgy Caesar. This deconstructed version offers the dish piece by piece: a wedge of ro maine, deviled egg, and delicious marinated white anchovies.

Tuna tartare features the raw fish formed into a round; it’s mixed with pine nuts, mint, oranges, and radishes. The flavors are light, sophisticated, and balanced. Calamari transcend the usual fried trope, sauteed and very tender; they’re mixed with florets of roasted cauliflower, a surprising and pleasing combination.

Even something as standard issue as pasta with chicken turns out to be light, bright, and interesting. Fresh, house-made tagliatelle are tangled with pieces of confit chicken and pancetta. The pasta is cooked perfectly, and the dish lifted out of the ordinary with preserved lemon, watercress, and pistachios.

Pasta here is almost entirely served as entree - this is an Italian restaurant, but it acknowledges the way most Americans eat. The exception is a gnocchi appetizer, tiny little nubs with great texture, served with mushrooms, pancetta, and Parmesan emulsion. How could they not taste good?

Pappardelle Bolognese is a huge portion, classic in flavor, but somewhat mushy. It’s not as memorable as some of the other dishes on the menu, though it’s quite good with the Barbera a server recommends. Lucca’s wine list covers many bases, with selections from Italy and beyond in a variety of price ranges. One evening, a waiter asked to suggest a wine on the sweet side offers a glass of sauvignon blanc with a splash of simple syrup. “Wait, can I ask for that everywhere?’’ says the guest, accustomed to waiters rolling their eyes at her sweet tooth. “I think you just changed my life.’’ Lucca’s servers aim to please. (Note to servers everywhere, however: Calling a table composed entirely of women “girls’’ or “ladies’’ each time you address them doesn’t necessarily accomplish this.)

There are a few dishes on the menu imported from Lucca in the North End, due to their popularity there. Rigatoni al cinghiale features big, fat segments of wonderful house-made pasta. But the sweet-and-sour braised boar they’re served with is both too sweet and too sour; the boar isn’t tender enough. Beef tenderloin also makes the journey from Hanover Street. It’s extremely tender but without much flavor, a bit too done on the outside and not done enough at the center. The porcini risotto and broccoli rabe it comes with are pleasant without making much of an impression.

A parsnip soup with bacon fritters, taleggio, and bacon vinaigrette is desperately in need of salt. Pan-roasted chicken is a surprise hit, very moist and flavorful, with crisp skin and a disc of herbed semolina, like an Italian version of chicken and dumplings. And seared scallops with turnip puree, sauteed spinach, and confit lobster mushrooms are simply delicious.

Desserts are no letdown. Toasted pound cake is served with a passion fruit panna cotta that’s a bit heavy on gelatin but has a wonderful tropical flavor. Chocolate and orange semifreddo is as smooth as butter and refreshingly cold, topped with a Florentine cookie.

This is a restaurant that didn’t much need to change, but perhaps its new identity will bring it fresh attention. Lucca Back Bay pleases the palate, so its name deserves to be on more people’s lips.

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com.

LUCCA BACK BAY

116 Huntington Ave., Boston. 617-247-2400. www.luccabackbay.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

Prices Appetizers $10-$16. Entrees $21-$36. Desserts $9-$13. Three-course prix fixe $37.

Hours Sun-Thurs 5-10 p.m., Fri-Sat 5-11 p.m., bar menu till 1:30 a.m. daily.

Noise level Conversation easy.

May we suggest

Gnocchi, calamari, tartare di tonno, tagliatelle con pollo, scallops.

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