Luca's Ristorante in Somerset, NJ. (Notice the Zagat sticker on the door.)
Luca’s Ristorante, a BYO in Somerset, NJ, is the first restaurant I chose to share with you because I have dined there countless times and each time the food and service have been exceptional. Spoiler alert!!! So much of my initial thrill in discovering Luca’s (about two years ago) was in walking through the unassuming exterior and entering into not just a restaurant, but an experience. If you’d like to experience this phenomenon for yourself without my description of it first, stop reading now, don’t look at any more photos, and please visit the restaurant; then come back to read the rest of this post.
A sampling of the charm inside Luca's Ristorante.
Along busy Route 27 there are dozens of strip malls with places to eat, but there are a small number I have found to offer quality food, top-notch service, variety, affordability, and a pleasing atmosphere. From the outside of the restaurant, Luca’s seems to be like any other eatery in the area, however, when you open the front door, you are instantly transported far away from the highway traffic and congestion you traveled through to get there to someplace very unique. Every inch of the restaurant is saturated with rich texture and your senses are immediately engaged. A stone half-wall adorned with pottery lines the entranceway and guides you inside. The ceiling is dressed in hanging lanterns and latticework covered with crawling vines. The painted areas of the walls are finished in deep red Venetian plaster and the rest of the walls are covered with vibrant murals, ceramic masks, dishes, and other wall hangings. From the woven seats on the chairs to the custom candleholders on the tables, it is evident that attention to detail is important here and not a single thing has been overlooked.
A glimpse of the ambiance found at Luca's Ristorante.
The man responsible for bringing the majority of the decorations directly from Ischia, an Italian island off the coast of Naples, to New Jersey is the owner of Luca’s, Andréa Di Meglio. Born in Ischia, Di Meglio is proud of his heritage and combines with it the traditions of Italian cooking (with which most of us are familiar) to create the unique experience that is Luca’s Ristorante. Di Meglio learned his way around a restaurant at a young age and developed a passion for cooking which exemplifies the culture found in Ischia, an island made up of craftsman and artisans who learned to make the most of what was immediately available to them and took pride in the work they created with their own hands. Understanding a bit about Ischia is helpful in appreciating its influence (and those of Ischian occupants including the French and Moroccan) found at Luca’s.
My most recent visit was the first opportunity I had to sit on the side of the restaurant from where it is possible to see the hustle and bustle of the kitchen. At first, I thought it may be distracting, but it wasn’t at all. Instead, the movement, along with the greenery, stone, and pottery, gave me the sense that I was at a party in someone’s backyard or on their terrace, with the dining room on the other side being another party at a next door neighbor’s. Though the initial impressions of the restaurant may be rustic, the wait staff is trained in a formal manner and their exceptional service gives patrons a fine dining experience while in a relaxed atmosphere. It is easy to glance around and see, whether at a couple or a large group, smiles and boisterous conversation radiating from each table.
Evidence of Di Meglio’s attention to detail and desire to make his customers happy continues as the first food of the night hits your table. A warm basket of delicately arranged, freshly made breads and sesame sticks is served with a spice infused oil and (my new personal favorite) a homemade butter made with sundried tomato, garlic, olives, and capers.
My friends with whom I was dining and I wanted to try as many different things as possible and we started with two appetizers. The Spedini Di Mozzarella (fried mozzarella in a brown brandy sauce, $9) is creamy and fresh and very addictive. Mushrooms stuffed with vegetables and cheese, a special for the night, with its fresh basil and finely chopped vegetables is a perfect dish for early spring. Following the appetizer course, we were served salads of fresh greens and tomatoes, with a house balsamic vinaigrette.
Gnocci di Spinaci Genovese
The entrées we ordered, served on thick red dishes, represent some of the variety offered on the menu. First, the Organic Whole Wheat Penne Serafino (grilled vegetables, goat cheese and fresh basil in a cherry tomato sauce, $19) is an example of Di Meglio’s efforts to accommodate his customers who are vegetarian or health conscious. Next, the Agnolotti Di Cacao (cocoa pasta filled with roasted butternut squash in a creamy herb sauce, $18) is a unique dish that tickles the palate with its sweetness, and thought it is creamy and rich in flavor, it is made with very little cheese and is surprisingly not a heavy dish. Finally, the dish that I had to make sure we ordered is Gnocci di Spinaci Genovese (spinach dumplings with braised sirloin, caramelized onions and Parmigianino Reggiano in a white wine beef reduction, $20). This woodsy looking dish of deep green and brown served steaming hot is a favorite among Luca’s regulars, and when the delicate beef falls apart on your fork and savory sauce covered gnocchi dance in your mouth, it is easy to understand why.
Quintessential Italian desserts of homemade pistachio gelato and homemade tiramisu rounded out the night’s dinner.
Whether you are looking to have a romantic dinner, spend time with family, or catch up with friends, Luca’s Ristorante is a fabulous choice. Di Meglio is at the restaurant daily and spends the majority of his time in the kitchen working with his staff to prepare the meals. When he speaks about his restaurant he is energetic and enthusiastic, saying, “It’s fun. It’s what I do. I love doing it.”
Toasting to a good time at Luca's Ristorante. (Notice the artwork on the walls.)
We are very fortunate that he does.
See you at Luca’s!
The Jersey Girl
Luca’s Ristorante: http://www.lucasristorante.com/index.html
2019 State Route 27, Somerset, NJ 08873
Also offered, are wine tastings (usually running around $45-50) but they are only advertised about one month before the event. If you are interested, ask your server about the events when you have lunch or dinner, or call and let them know you want to be notified when the next event takes place.