Mounting the wide industrial stairs that lead to the second-floor dining room, you look up into the exposed ductwork and age-honeyed wooden rafters of the converted warehouse where Lucia opened last September. At the top of the stairs, you take in the dining room. Oversize barrel-shaded pendant lights suspended from the high ceiling add warmth and a touch of drama to a decor that might be called urban warehouse chic: concrete floors, midcentury modern chairs at tables stained a dark coffee hue, large mirrors framed in unfinished boards hung over deep semicircular banquettes upholstered in a rich chocolate brown.
On the other side of gauzy, floor-to-ceiling drapes, behind the bar, a wall of windows overlooking Main Street affords a panoramic view that continually changes with the traffic and the weather.
The look is at once sophisticated and relaxed, striking a balance that has become something of a trademark for Urban Food Group. Lucia is the first foray into Durham for the Raleigh-based group that owns Vivace, Coquette and Chow in the capital city. Their new venture is billed as a spinoff of Vivace – more casual than that upscale Italian concept, and with a greater emphasis on small plates in keeping with the current trend for sharing. For those familiar with the group’s reputation, expectations for Lucia – regardless of how casual the concept – are high.
Often, but not as often as you’d expect of an Urban Food Group restaurant nearly six months after opening, the kitchen meets those expectations. Given that chef Matt Greiner comes to Lucia from Vivace, it’s especially perplexing that the food can be as variable as the view out those windows behind the bar.
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That’s not to say there aren’t patches of blue sky in the forecast for anyone who sets out for a meal at Lucia. Vivace fans will recognize a few of their favorites – albeit tweaked to a degree – on the antipasti list. Semolina-dusted calamari with a spicy tomato aioli, for one, get tossed with a smattering of roasted peppers and lemon zest. Brussels sprouts take a tasty detour down Pork Belly Lane (where rendered fat glazes the caramelized morsels with an unctuous mouth-feel). And if there’s any difference between Lucia’s meatballs and the toothsome orbs at Vivace, I couldn’t tell it.
Lucia’s expanded small plates offering brings a few new dishes to the table, too, among them polenta with wild mushrooms; crispy fingerling potatoes with cipollini onions and horseradish aioli; and a delightful pairing of burrata and beets garnished with basil and toasted fennel salt.
Then there’s “cioppino,” a dish that started out as a fairly close rendering of Vivace’s PEI mussels, but morphed into the current presentation when the chef decided to toss in a couple of shrimp, spice up the broth (including, recently, lemongrass) and call it cioppino. Tasty, yes. Cioppino, no.
Nor does “porchetta” on the entree list bear more than a passing resemblance to the classic Italian pork roast of that name. Here, the pork appears to have been ground together with seasonings and other ingredients (presumably including the cotechino sausage promised on the menu) and roasted to a dry, crumbly texture that no amount of pork belly wrapping can save. If the “cioppino” was a minor offense, then this “porchetta” is cause for revoking the chef’s poetic license.
Then Greiner turns around and redeems himself with an impeccable pan-seared corvina, served over an inspired roasted beet and farro salad in green goddess dressing. And his pastas – all house-made – are on point, from spaghetti cacio e pepe (“cheese and pepper,” the quintessentially simple Italian classic here rendered with toasted black pepper and shaved Parmesan) to rustic pappardelle with wild boar ragu and a snowy cap of fresh stracciatella cheese.
Individual pizzas, another Vivace hallmark, get a couple of tempting new topping combinations at Lucia: eggplant, house-made ricotta, black garlic and fresh oregano; and a “meat” pie co-starring ham hock and wild boar. If you’re inclined to yield to temptation, be advised that an inconsistent crust makes the choice a gamble.
Choice of beverage isn’t a gamble at all, though it might present a dilemma. Even a diehard hophead would be hard-pressed to resist the siren call of Lucia’s all-Italian selection of more than 350 wines.
Given Greiner’s track record at Vivace, I can only guess that the chef and his team are still adjusting to a new kitchen in a new town. And, as anyone familiar with Urban Food Group’s nearly 20-year history (dating back to the venerable Frazier’s on Hillsborough Street), it’s a good bet that they’ll weather the storm.
605-A W. Main St., Durham; 984-219-1965
Rating: ☆☆ 1/2
Atmosphere: urban warehouse chic
Noise level: moderate
Service: variably experienced, well-trained for the most part
Recommended: meatballs, house-made pastas, pan-seared corvina
Open: lunch Monday-Saturday, dinner nightly, brunch Sunday
Other: full bar; accommodates children; good vegetarian selection; gluten-free menu; limited parking on street, additional parking in surface lots, free valet parking Thursday-Saturday nights; ADA compliant (elevator to the right of the stairs, accessible bathrooms).
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆ Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.