If you enjoy interesting stories about how Italian restaurants (or any kind of restaurants) came to live in the Houston area, consider the strange case of Luca & Leonardo, doing great business along the Woodlands Waterway since the beginning of June. For all its authenticity Italian-wise, it actually is the first U.S. outpost of a successful restaurant company – in Mexico!
Luca & Leonardo is molto (and mucho) intimate and romantic, I can report after a wine-kissed debache with my friend Almost Veggie. The wine glasses always glisten – no accident there – and the red napkins are always formed into rose petals. Most of all, the service always seems to know and go the extra mile, without ever hanging over you – all to make the most of executive chef Daniel Miranda’s cooking.
Since he comes to us from Mexico, the land of ceviche, Miranda should be forgiven for immediately thinking the beef carpaccio created years ago at Harry’s Bar in Venice (thanks for the Bellini, while we’re at it) needed to be “reloaded” as a seafood appetizer. This is an amazing summer dish, with several seafoods like octopus and swordfish super-thinly sliced and covered with a kind of sauce swished through with balsamic vinegar. Ceviche, say hello to my little friend, carpaccio.
Another super-hit at Luca & Leonardo, which actually began as a concept called Lucca (Puccini’s hometown) in Mexico City, is something they’ve dubbed malfatti. Always meaning “poorly made,” these are not the irregular tortellini-style stuffed pastas we’re familar with (usually spelled “malafatta”) but a spinach and cheese ball that’s batter-fried and covered in more cheese and red sauce. Gee, I wonder why Texas loves this so much!
In one of the first nifty appearances of saffron at the new restaurant, here’s a risotto dish featuring extra-large Gulf shrimp. Thanks to Miranda’s 15-plus years of chef experience in Mexico, much of it cooking Italian food, the guy knows how to make risotto that’s soft enough to be lush but still hard enough to not be mush. I’d like to study with the Italian guy he learned this from.
As I learned recently, when you travel to Bologna in Italy, the last thing you’ll see on anybody’s menu is “Bolognese sauce.” There it’s called simply ragu, despite the association many Americans might feel to those jars of supermarket pasta and pizza sauce. Chef Miranda calls his Bolognese ragu as well, then ladles it generously over homemade papardelle.
For diners who like to sing to their pasta “I Get a Kick Outta You,” there is Luca and Leonardo’s fettuccine arrabiata (the word means “angry,” which this will not make you). The dish is offered on the menu with chicken but, out of unbounded affection for Almost Veggie, Luca – or was it Leonardo? – served us a variation with shrimp. This one needs to be on the menu too.
And speaking of Almost Veggie, she was particularly delighted to revisit something she sampled on her first visit to Luca & Leonardo – the dish that made her text me that we had to come here sometime. This pan-roasted halibut was perfect, given a bit of extra texture by leeks sprinkled around the top and decadence by the saffron sauce spooned around the bottom.
Needless to say, I was on my own for this osso buco. Chef Daniel and Co. have been experimenting with different cooking times, rejecting the shortest times that, of course, leave the shank too tough but also rejecting the longer times that turn it into the tasty mush we find in so many Italian restaurants. Like barbecue geeks in Lockhart or Taylor, they’ve found the perfect cooking time for tender yet still looking like itself.
Sometime before, during or after the meal, I’d swear I took a photo (and know I tasted) one or two of Luca & Leonardo’s first-rate pizzas. But, probably a function of too many San Giovese grapes, I can’t find that picture now. So I’d better close with my favorite dessert, something the guys called cracked meringue, or sometimes simply “meringue crack.” Either phrase describes this dessert, and perhaps the entire experience of Luca & Leonardo, pretty well.