The Gossiping Gourmet: Lucca offers cuisine that's more fun to share

Since the day Lucca Café opened in Irvine, owner/chef Cathy Pavlos has consistently prepared exciting, delicious Mediterranean-style cuisine. The menu features a gorgeous variety of vegetable antipasti, a superb selection of cheese and an extensive list of charcuterie including salumi by Armandino Batali.

Tucked away in the Tuscanesque Quail Hill shopping center off Sand Canyon Road, diners can enjoy the pleasant patio or their open-kitchen dining room with softly curved walls and counters. Wood, earth tones and wine bottles provide a genial ambiance while white tablecloths are trotted out to dress up the room for the evening meal when the fireplace lends a cheerful glow.

We think the best way to enjoy this menu is to share everything, so that you can taste more of the extensive possibilities. If you are with a group, you might want to begin with the five-taste cheese board chosen from their weekly selection served with seasonal and dried fruit, nuts, chutney, sweet bread and crostini. You can get a three-cheese board or individual cheeses as well.

Another possibility would be a nice plate of cured meat or an assortment of their reserve charcuterie with choices from small American artisanal producers. Batali's unique mole salame has strong notes of ancho and chipotle chile with subtle undertones of chocolate and cinnamon … absolutely addictive. His finochiona is a marvel as well, with its cracked fennel and hint of curry.

If you are dining at Lucca on certain nights you will be delighted with the display of the ever-changing farmer's market produce on the antipasto table. Go up and pick out what looks good to you.

We had excellent mixed-roasted peppers, a yummy cheese-stuffed, deep-fried, mild chili and some disappointing, bland grilled mushrooms. For four or more diners, you can leave the choosing to the chef who will prepare you a generous selection of meats, cheeses and antipasti.

Samplers are a feature in every menu category except salads, so if you want soup, you can select a trio of shooters in addition to the soup of the week. We sipped a wonderful mushroom soup that was the quintessence of earthy mushroom, not creamy or rich but intensely flavored. The spinach soup was good too but a tad salty. The broccoli-cheese was thick and tasted more of cheese than vegetable…our least favorite. In the pasta department, you can get a trio of mixed ravioli.

The seafood category boasts a scallop in a crispy Parmesan basket, three peri-peri glazed jumbo shrimp and a Greek crab cake with preserved lemon aioli and fennel slaw. The sweet glazed scallop was moist and tasty but the basket had little flavor. The shrimp were excellent and the peri-peri sauce was better balanced than any we've tasted. It had a gentle heat and a citrusy background.

The threesome from the mixed grill included a juicy and tender hanger steak with lots of meatiness, two nice baby lamb chops and two not so nice St. Louis-style pork ribs that tasted reheated. They came with a hearty, layered potato "Napoleon." The sliders also come three to an order but are all the same luscious, juicy Kobe beef with smoked cheddar, caramelized onions and some crispy shoestring sweet potato fries.

Another way to go is the three-course prix fixe dinner for $30. To begin, choose soup, salad or prosciutto with fruit, then one of four entrées and dessert. The pan-seared John Dory was outstanding in its white wine caper butter sauce, accompanied by delicious new potatoes and nicely sautéed spinach. The caramelized apple galette had a thin, flaky, crisp crust with a sweet apple center and a bit of good caramel sauce.

Lucca has a very nice selection of reasonably priced wine, and its corkage fee is only $10.

Lucca Café

Information: (949) 725-1773 http://www.luccacafe.com

Where: 6507 Quail Hill Parkway, Irvine

When:

Lunch: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday

Dinner: 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Sunday

Weekend brunch: 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Dinner menu prices:

Appetizers: $4-$21

Entrées: $15-$23

Desserts: $8.50-$12

Wine:

Half-bottles: $18.75-$39.50

Bottles: $21.50-$195

By the glass: $4.25-$18.50

Corkage Fee: $10

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