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Chef Ken Vedrinski Interprets His Italian Roots at Charleston’s Trattoria Lucca
I’d like a glass of II Follo Prosecco, Extra Dry now to transport me back to the aperitif recently offered to us at Trattoria Lucca. The chilled honey-lemon flavor, veiled by the pink of this sparkling rose, was the perfect antidote to the sweltering Charleston heat. It was a sublime start to a superb meal.
Trattoria Lucca is off the Charleston tourist beaten path in a partially gentrified area. The façade is unassuming and discreet. A smallish sign and sidewalk-situated Charleston benches are all that suggest a restaurant.
The locals love it for its distinctive fare, fair prices, and absence of tourists. It’s no surprise that Charleston City Paper readers voted it “Best New Restaurant.” Here’s their insight into why: “Was there any doubt that Ken Vedrinski’s amazing little trattoria in the ‘hood would win? We didn’t think so. The food is astounding, affordable, and hidden from the tourists. What could be more appealing to local foodies?”
Thanks to the May issue of Gourmet Magazine, parola si sta diffondendo (word is spreading…shhh) beyond the peninsula and may someday threaten this peaceful, local oasis with visor-capped, raccoon-eyed, sunburned Mid-Western vacationers. The damage has begun with this from Gourmet… “Last fall, he [Vedrinski] opened Trattoria Lucca, Charleston’s answer to a casual Mario Batali place, on an unlikely residential corner away from the tourist traps, and the natives came running.”
Having twice lived in Charleston, but sadly now a tourist and “stranger among us,” I enjoyed observing the eclectic mix of diners at Lucca. We were surrounded by young hipsters, blue-haired and blue-blooded S.O.B.’s, (Charleston’s version of aristocrats from South of Broad [Street]); wealthy, carpet-bagging S.O.B’s (new money to buy – and afford upkeep on multi-million dollar S.O.B. homes on the Battery); well-heeled college kids attempting to look otherwise, MUSC doctors and more. The mix made for pleasant acoustics with bright sounds of sincere laughter and the always melodic (to me), chink of wine glasses touching the table for a refill. Late summer afternoon light spilled into the room turning an already easy atmosphere into a gold-imbued, cozy setting for wanton dining pleasure. Yes, I suspect this is the stage Vedrinski sought when he un-chained himself from corporations, partners/owners and set out to create and own Trattoria Lucca.
After the Aperitif. The freshly baked (on-site) ciabatta arrived accompanied by a cannellini bean puree with Asiago cheese in a generous pool of Lucca olive oil. (Instructions to self: Just try the bread first. Plain – no mattering how enticing the puree appears.) The ciabatta was perfect in taste and all the more so in texture. Thankfully, Vedrinski allowed the cannellini its natural flavor integrity, rather than requiring it be a mere culinary conduit for some other complicated concoction.
Cauliflower Custard? The Warm Cauliflower Sformatino with a soft organic egg was our first appetizer. It was so sensual that it was almost downright embarrassing to eat in public. (Perhaps this would have have explained why other women in the “When Harry Meets Sally” scene wanted what Meg Ryan was having.) It looks indulgent; it tastes indulgent, yet it is not rich. Rather, it is the ideal appetizer, light and promising of great expectations to follow. Basically custard, the cauliflower Sformatino required a knife slit in the center to reveal the perfectly poached egg inside. The yolk opened and briefly lingered in the custard before plunging toward the plate, where it formed a sunny puddle. Alas, I was not alone with the Sformatino. We all shared in an almost (continuing the sensual reference) orgiastic swoop on the pureed flowerettes, first with forks, then spoons and ultimately, Ciabatta in hand, we sopped the plate clean. ($8)
Misto Magnifico. The misto (mixture) was next and beyond generous. There was plenty for two or more as a diverse and flavorful meal. The misto is not on the Assaggini (loosely translated: snack) menu. Ask for it. You’ll be pleasantly astonished. At our table, the mix included an Eggplant Involtini, basically a roasted and rolled eggplant filled with caponata that was exquisite, at once complicated, yet simplistic due to the seamless assimilation of flavors. Vedrinski punches it with sweet surprises: golden raisins and Moscato vinegar provide luscious contrast to the anchovies, capers and all the otherwise divine ingredients in a customary caponata. The Involtini is available on the menu by itself (Uno – $8). Also in our misto were thinly sliced golden beets with white balsamic, pickled garlic, tangerine, and Calabrese chiles. I have never been a beet lover; perhaps I ate too much dirt as a kid. For the love of my husband and in deference to Tom Robbins’ “Jitterbug Perfume,” I have tried mightily (and failed) to appreciate the earthy essence of beets. Vedrinski has made me a convert, if only to the sweeter golden variety. It helps my visually manipulated palate that there is no beet bloodstain from the golden breed. Other delights included asparagus with a delicate mustard sauce and a variety of formaggi and salumi. Standouts were the Cravanzina (a mild and buttery cow and sheep milk cheese imported from the Italian Piemonte region, topped with roasted grapes–a treasure in their own right), and the Prosciutto di Parma Grand Riserva, air cured for three years. I regret that I did not order the enticing sounding Mortadella, a smoked sausage with pistachio nuts. ($32-by request)
Paste and Piatti. Our appetites persevered with such entrees as: Toasted Fregola, Grilled, Naturally-Raised Veal Flank Steak, Local Chanterelles, Guanciale, Goat Butter and Rosemary ($23); Grilled Ashley Farm Chicken “Mattone,” Artichokes, Cerignola Olives, Lemon Agrumato, Parsley and Farro Risotto ($19) and Scamp Grouper, Local Blue Crab, Barbara Vinegar, Organic Yellow Tomato, EVO ($25). The veal flank steak was so perfectly savory that it was clear Vedrinski knew precisely when to stop in this creation. Mild veal, strong bacon, nutty and tender Chanterelles mixed with toasted beads of semolina pasta and goat butter pretty much hailed from some entire farm. Oh yes, the herb garden: Vedrinski has just the right touch with rosemary.
Choosing chicken off an exotic menu could be considered conservative, yet the artichokes, olives and lemon agrumato beckoned me and always will (these ingredients on Melba toast would have been fine with me). The chicken was a splendid surprise and hit me like the brick (mattone) it was cooked under. It was amazing.
The Scamp grouper with blue crab was fresh and very good. It would have been a star on most any menu, but the competition between divine dishes at Trattoria Lucca is harsh, and –at least on this night—the grouper lacked the star power of the other dishes, despite being the most costly among our choices. This was exacerbated by a bit of confusion with our wait staff, resulting in two of this dish, rather than the snapper that one of the guests had ordered.
The Veneto (wine list) is expansive – but not expensive. All of the bottles are in the $30-$40 range with only two at $50. Perfectly paired pricing for Lucca’s menu. Glasses are available for $8 or $9, and unlike many lists, there are numerous by-the-glass choices.
Next time I will surely order the wildly popular Berkshire Pork Chop “Milanese” with a warm heirloom tomato salad, arugula and speck ham. The house-made Italian sausage, uniquely prepared with duck, is also on my wish list. We’ll likely also save room for more varieties of gelato (house-made). This night we shared just the one: three large scoops of vanilla bean – dense and delicious, topped with gigantic local blackberries. Tiramisu cheesecake? There’s always next time.
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