Luciana’s Ristorante in Dana Point celebrates 40 years of Nona’s recipes

Linguini scampi at Luciana's Ristorante
Luciana’s Ristorante offers a menu reflecting the Luhan family’s culinary heritage, like the linguine scampi.
(Courtesy of Luciana’s Ristorante)

This year, Luciana’s Ristorante in Dana Point celebrates its 40th anniversary. Since opening in 1983, the restaurant has served the Orange County community for occasions both great and small. Owner Jorge Luhan II said the restaurant’s legacy began with handmade pasta.

“We started off doing all the homemade pastas,” said Luhan. “At the time, we were the first ones to do homemade gnocchi and homemade pastas with homemade sauces.”

Luhan’s mother, Lucia “Lucy” Luhan opened What’s Cooking? Bistro in Newport Beach in 1976, offering a menu of traditional family recipes made with fresh ingredients with the help of her mother and Luhan’s nona, Mary Vallera.

Luciana's Ristorante owner Jorge Luhan Jr. with his mother, Luciana, and his late grandmother in 2013.
Luciana’s Ristorante owner Jorge Luhan Jr. with his mother, Lucy, also known as Luciana, and his late grandmother in 2013.
(Rick Davitt)

“My mom was always in search of fresh foods, given her strong Italian background,” said Luhan.

Luhan said in 1970s there was a lack of understating of what Italian food truly was. While people knew spaghetti, other pasta types were lesser known. Besides spaghetti, Luhan said his nona also oversaw the production of ravioli, tortellini, tortellacci, gnocchi, rigatoni and penne, just to name a few.

“A lot of these products that we know today as being staples weren’t really that familiar,” said Luhan. “In Orange County at that time, I don’t think people were as culturally versed as far as international dining and cuisine. So the whole concept was pretty new.”

What’s Cooking? Bistro’s success prompted Lucia to open What’s Cooking Express Cuisine in Costa Mesa in 1982. The following year, she opened Luciana’s Ristorante in a historic former home in the Lantern District in Dana Point. Rather than duplicate the bistro concept of the other two locations, Luciana’s Ristorante opened as an elevated dinner house.

“It was more bringing the simplicity of Italian cuisine of What’s Cooking? but presenting it in a formalized dining room setting,” said Luhan. “It was the formal dining venue Mom always visualized having.”

In 1985, Lucia purchased an old Tuscan farmhouse in Italy and turned 18 acres of olive groves into Villa Lucia, home of a bed and breakfast and hand-pressed extra-virgin olive oil business that is used exclusively at Luciana’s Ristorante. In 1991, she moved to Italy permanently and left Luciana’s in the hands of Luhan, who has been running it ever since.

Luciana’s Ristorante in Dana Point.
(Courtesy of Luciana’s Ristorante)

“I came out of school in 1991, and I jumped in to assist my mother, as she was spending most of her time out of county, and that is how I got involved in the industry and I never turned back,” said Luhan.

Luhan is proud of the way the restaurant has played a role in the community through the years and points out that multiple generations of families have frequented his family’s establishment.

“We had one family here the other day, and it was the rehearsal dinner for the daughter,” said Luhan. “I got pulled to the side, and the mom was ecstatic because she had her rehearsal dinner here.”

Luhan credits the restaurant’s longevity to adapting with the times.

“One of the big things that has made us successful over the years is the understanding that times change,” Luhan said. “A brand has to evolve, and it is a continuation of looking at the brand and asking, ‘Where is it today and what does it represent?’”

Luhan said it can be a balancing act, trying to maintain what longtime guests have come to know and love while keeping the concept fresh. Most guests, he said, are looking for a well-rounded dining experience.

“The culinary part is a big factor, but they also want it in an environment with ambiance,” Luhan said. “I think Luciana’s provides that: a historic venue with great colors and a great feel reminiscent of old Tuscany.”

Another way Luciana’s has kept current is by investing in its wine program.

Luciana’s Ristorante offers an extensive wine list of 350 labels from 10 countries.
(Courtesy of Luciana’s Ristorante)

In 2023, Luciana’s received the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator, which recognizes exceptional wine programs and establishments with outstanding wine lists. Under the direction of general manager and sommelier, William Blank, Luciana’s boasts an extensive wine list of 350 labels from 10 countries as well as a Private Wine Cellar, which is also a popular location for private parties and events.

Luciana’s still serves classic Italian dishes, but with modern sensibilities and a what Luhan calles a “California fresh twist.”

“If you look at the menu we have some of the dishes that have been around, like our classic ravioli, but instead of doing a more heavy sauce, we might do a lighter sauce,” said Luhan.

Luhan assures, however, the pastas are still handmade the way his nona, who worked in the kitchen into her ’90s, made them.

“The foundation of the menu is still homemade pastas,” Luhan said.

There are wine dinners and other special events scheduled for the upcoming holiday season, and Luhan looks forward to celebrating the 40th anniversary through the end of the year with Luciana’s loyal guests.

“Without our guests, we are nobody,” said Luhan. “Thank you for the 40 years of patronage, and we look forward to 40 more.”