Luciano at the Strand opened in the handsomely but minimally renovated space previously occupied by the ambitious and muchappreciated Gladys, with a gambit that was a gamble: Take Italian cuisine, subject it to the sensibilities of a credentialed Southwestern chef, and present it to an unsuspecting public.

Talented chef Jesse Perez, formerly of Francesca’s at the Westin La Cantera, left for a prestigious post in Atlanta. But, counting on current kitchen competency (a new chef was hired at press time) and without making massive initial changes in the menu, owner Joe Buonincontri has pulled the fat from the fire. So to speak.

Service started slowly but picked up in both speed and (appropriate) attentiveness throughout a thoroughly enjoyable recent evening; Thursday’s troubadour, Jorge Paloma, provided an altogether appealing accompaniment to the meal; and the food just kept getting better and better.

To be honest, it’s often hard to top a good Negroni (Campari, sweet vermouth and gin), no matter how good the cuisine, and Luciano does a mean one — though the bartender might have gotten just a tad carried away with the lemon and orange garnish of slices, not the expected peel. The bittersweet character of the drink was even a match for an extremely handsome plate of carpaccio topped with a salad of peppery greens lightly anointed with good olive oil.

The sprightly salsa verde accenting seared diver scallops served over white polenta did matter, adding a bright accent to the meaty mollusk lightly perfumed with earthy truffle essence. But none of the above had prepared us for the pasta dish we shared in advance of the main plates: Ravioli di zucca are house-made ravioli stuffed with sweetly rustic pumpkin, and they are a revelation.

Part of the excitement is generated by the tender ravioli themselves, but sautéing them in butter accented with earthy, fresh sage plays sweet and delicate against rich and pungent, and the addition of grated biscotti (amaretti are sometimes used) adds both ritual allure and a grace note of anise flavor. A kind of crescendo had been reached that the entrées were going to have trouble matching.

Conceptually, the anatra alla saltimbocca was utterly irresistible on the page. Duck breast stuffed with prosciutto and sage in the manner of the classic veal dish? What’s to lose? And in fact, the duck itself was impeccably prepared to a desirable rare-to-medium-rare degree. In the traditional dish, the flatly pounded veal and prosciutto are almost equal players, with the sage in a strong supporting role and a white wine reduction even considered optional. In this case, the plump petto di anatra is just too magnificent; the rest counts for little most of the time — though the wine sauce may have gone the opposite direction with its mushrooms bathed in marsala sweetness. Yet there’s great promise here if balance can be achieved — maybe through slicing the duck breast rather than stuffing it.

There were no overly inventive moves employed on the osso bucco, a dish perfect for both winter and the bottle of Catena Malbec we had ordered at the beginning of the evening. The $40 Argentine Malbec was wonderful throughout the meal. Luciano thoughtfully and correctly serves this Milanese dish with a small fork for extracting the marrow from the shin bone, and the marrow is the luxurious, Lucullan touch in what is otherwise an unpretentious presentation.

The veal was fine for its part, with a fall-from-the-bone texture, but it could have used the snap a simple gremolata (the traditional garnish of chopped lemon zest, garlic and parsley) normally brings to bear.

There’s such a canon of classic Italian recipes — well beyond the lasagnas and chicken cacciatores that Luciano thankfully does not see the need to trot out — that attempts to be innovative are bound to be judged against it. All the more reason to keep trying, and the Luciano kitchen clearly has the talent. What they may now need is the time — and perhaps the combined guidance of Buonincontri and his new capo di cuoca.

What we didn’t have at this point in the evening was room — for the El Rey Chocolate “torta” with mascarpone crema I really wanted. Dining companion, suitably and sophisticatedly sweatered against the season, found our compromise, the lemon sabayon pine nut tart, but it was spot-on for me, providing just the proper, delicate coda to an evening that could hardly be called calorically — or culinarily — cautious.

Author: Ron Bechtol

Photographer: Janet Rogers