Some interesting things are happening in Locust Point restaurant-wise, but only the Wine Market gets much press. If you don't live in the area, it's easy to forget about Hull Street Blues, Pazza Luna, Nasu Blanca, Aloha Tokyo and, now, Luca's Cafe.
Luca's is the newest of the places that are part of a general gentrification of the area. The old Truman's Bar has been gutted, and a sparkling little restaurant has opened in its place.
It's a collaboration of Chris Maler and Lando Orsino, both of whom have sons named Luca. When news of the new place first surfaced, much was made of the fact that Maler was also involved with Matthew's Pizzeria in Highlandtown, a local favorite. Forget that. Pizza is on Luca's menu, but a very different sort. It's thin-crusted, with ingredients like arugula, tapenade and cipollini onions.
I liked the looks of the place the minute I stepped in the door. You can eat in the bar area downstairs; but on a nice spring evening the windows are thrown open in the upstairs dining room and it's a pretty, cheerful place to be - with the work of local artists on the walls and lots of plants.
William Hughes is the executive chef, but the night we were there the chef de cuisine, Shawn Lagergren, was much in evidence. He came out to fillet the whole flounder, cooked Mediterranean-style, and told us he was from southern Louisiana.
Specials like gumbo tend to reflect his origins, along with a few signature dishes like the must-have Shrimp on Fire appetizer: huge shrimp (served with their heads on) in a fiery sauce in which chopped tomatoes, cilantro and garlic strike the most predominant notes. The presentation, a sort of volcano of shrimp with a sprig of rosemary coming out of the top, is worth the price of admission.
A dip that looks like crab dip (and contains some lump crab) but tastes vividly of pesto is another winner, particularly if you want more from your crab dip than just calories.
You could also start dinner by sharing one of the individual pizzas. They are hard to classify: not old school, not really gourmet. Most of them rely heavily on meat or seafood and are, therefore, substantial enough for a main course even though they aren't large; but there is a vegetable pizza. Take the listing of vegetables on the menu as possibilities only. For instance, the dice of squash and zucchini on ours wasn't mentioned, but all of us approved.
For Luca's steak dishes, including the pizza, the kitchen uses a cut of beef called tri-tip. It's from the bottom sirloin, flavorful and comparatively low in fat. It can also be tough.
Tri-tip worked beautifully when grilled with a spicy rub and sliced thin for an appetizer. The slices lay on crisp grilled crostini and had so much beefy flavor they didn't need the horseradish-ranch dressing dipping sauce.
The cut worked less well as a steak marinated in olive oil and garlic. It simply had too much chew. But if you don't mind chewiness in your meat, it makes a relatively inexpensive steak dinner - a bargain, really, when you consider it comes with potatoes mashed with their red skins and fresh green beans.
Even better, though, was the Caribbean baked half chicken. Its dry rub was spicy but not overwhelming, and the meat was succulent.
Luca's menu has only five entrees, one of which is the fish of the day, like our flounder in a sauce of olives, tomatoes, and capers in a broth that almost made it seem poached. It was cooked a bit too long for my taste, but it's always good to know where to get whole fish. Salads and sandwiches are a big part of the menu; along with the pizza, they make Luca's a pretty inexpensive place to eat.
The weakest part of our meal was the pitcher of sangria, not inexpensive at $30, which was alcoholic but had a finish like Welch's grape juice. Too bad, because Luca's isn't trying to compete with the nearby Wine Market with its wine list.
On to happier subjects, namely dessert. I favored the hot, puffy fried dough dusted with powdered sugar, with honey on the side for dipping. We also had a fine, moist banana bread pudding with chocolate sauce and a chocolate fondue with banana bread cubes and fruit for dipping. (Please hold the marshmallows.)
Luca's has found its audience on the weekend, apparently, but weeknights can be slow. That's too bad, because this is a likable spot that brings something different to the neighborhood: Moderately priced bistro fare and American comfort food (even the Hungarian goulash with gnocchi falls in that category, to my mind) along with some upscale pub grub.
And maybe most important, Locust Point now has a good pizza joint.