Just inside the front door of Lucianos Italian Restaurant is a black-and-white photograph of Lucky Luciano, the glorified mafia character who unknowingly inspired this new restaurant on Orchard Street. Perhaps the only Italian import more romanticized in America than the mafia is the Italian restaurant, with its drippy candles in chianti bottles, vine-draped walls and giant platters of red sauce and noodles.
Lucianos is in the same warm fictional family of American-Italian restaurant chains, with a broad menu of pasta, pizza, salads and sandwiches. Tables are dressed with butcher paper, the servers wear crisp white shirts and red ties, and you are virtually assured of hearing Mambo Italiano on the sound system, and it is a restaurant still finding its footing, with both food and service.
Few establishments emerge on the first day fully formed, so some missteps are to be expected. But this means that as a patron, you are essentially paying for the restaurants experimentation.
There are a dozen-plus appetizers. My wife and I liked the fried artichoke hearts ($8), lightly battered and served with a ramekin of red pepper mayonnaise. But we didnt receive any pesto aioli, also described on the menu, and after a few bites, the dish kept hitting the same note with no nuance.
And while I enjoyed the Lumache alla Sambuca ($12) as it is not every day you find snails on a Boise menu, and each was a buttery, savory burst there was no hint of shallot or anise at all, which also were described on the menu.
The pasta entrees we tried were hearty, straightforward takes on classics, huge and covered in cheese. The baked manicotti ($10) is stuffed with ricotta but not a discernable herb and covered with a good housemade marinara. The sauce on the meaty bolognese ($10) is a deeper, acidic, wine-dark version on a pile of good ol spaghetti, garnished with shaved parmesan.
Each dish was served with roughly half a loaf of garlic bread. For $2.50, you can add on a soup (such as a flavorful if thin lobster bisque) or a house salad (mostly iceberg, heavily dressed, with a slice of salami and wedge of cheese) all in all, a fine value but not especially memorable.
Better was the Castellano Combo pizza ($13 for a 12-inch pie, all the way up to $21 for an 18-inch), with thick, delicious, pillowy made-from-scratch crust that crackled on the edges, chunks of fennel-seeded housemade meatball, a sweetish red sauce, dollops of ricotta and caramelized onion.
Though we are generally thin-crust devotees, we were persuaded here, and the 12-inch version was enough for both of us. (The pizza menu has off-center choices including a Cajun pie and another with buffalo sauce among the standards.)
At lunch, we tried a focaccia sandwich with pork shoulder ($8), the bread overly flavored with dried herbs outside and the fillings bland inside, with none of the fennel promised by the menu. And we were less than impressed with a sirloin salad ($9) of blue cheese, walnuts and wintry grapes on pale lettuce. The steak came several degrees more done than ordered and had an unpleasant, gritty texture.
Which leads to service. On our first visit, the young man serving us was kind and enthusiastic but a little clueless about the menu or when certain things should naturally happen. He was unable to tell us anything about the ingredients in the dishes we were about to order, needed prompting to refill water, and left virtually every dish on the table through the whole meal. He served us bread still frozen in the center, and when we told him, he apologized but left it in front of us.
Another server was sharper professionally and was able to accommodate me when I noticed the snails on the menu and asked to change my order.
But how another server handled the overcooked sirloin was less fortunate. When we pointed out the doneness, she told us she knew it was overdone when she served it, and that they had just brought in a new cut of steak, but had not yet gotten it down.
This is the part about paying for the restaurant to practice, which I personally do not enjoy. While she offered to have another steak cooked, we were on a lunch hour and not inspired by her confidence in the sirloin itself. The solution she offered was somewhat perplexing a $10 gift card.
In any restaurant, mistakes are made, and the measure of success is not what happens when things are sailing along smoothly, but how service responds to a challenge. There is potential here, but the window to work out such kinks is sometimes very short.
Email Alex Kiesig: firstname.lastname@example.org