Review published July 2005
FROM THE OUTSIDE, Ristorante Luci and her sister restaurant, Luci Ancora, appear so dissimilar you’d guess one was fathered by the mailman, er, il postino. The two are located kitty-corner from each other in St. Paul at the intersection of Cleveland and Randolph avenues, on either side of the gates of the College of St. Catherine. Luci is the homelier—but perhaps more lovable—child, opened by Al and Lucille Smith in 1987 in what was formerly a 3.2 bar called the Club. It’s a dimly lit dining room with coral walls, white linens, and generic stackable banquet chairs, located in an unremarkable brick building with a glowing Pabst Blue Ribbon sign out front. In contrast, the eight-year-old Ancora (which means “encore” in Italian) is the prom queen, an olive-colored villa with a wood-burning fireplace and patterned fabrics draped over windows that look out on the campus.
But looks only go dining room deep. The real question is, What’s cookin’ in the kitchen? The Smiths, who spent 11 years living in Italy, originally intended that Ancora’s fare would hail from the north and Luci’s from the south. Over the years, that rule has bent like elbow macaroni. The format of the menu is the same, the basics—homemade pastas, breads, and stocks—are shared, and both restaurants use as many fresh, local ingredients as possible. Is one pricier? The other more experimental? Can we make some distinctions?
When pressed, Maria Gans (née Smith), who runs the fronts of the houses with her sister Daniela, says the differences are largely the whims of the chefs: her brother, Stephen Smith, at Luci, and honorary family member Jim Kohler at Ancora. (But Stephen also cooks at Ancora, and sometimes Luci dishes are served at Ancora and Ancora dishes are served at Luci—you see the problem?) The reasons some diners prefer one over the other—a penchant for truffle oil, a more spacious restroom—seem either ineffable or somewhat arbitrary. Some say Luci, some say Ancora, let’s call the whole thing off.
A recent four-course prezzo fisso (fixed-price) meal at Luci was a steal at $26. It began with a few green olives and a square of homemade, hand-pulled mozzarella, which had a texture like firm tofu, more crumbly than smooth. The cheese was followed by a cold tomato soup that was overwhelmed by a dull cumin flavor, then a hearty but somewhat soupy risotto with pork sausage and red cabbage. As it turned out, the poached salmon with apples and strawberries was the surprise favorite; the delicate sweetness was marred only by the gratuitous use of parsley, which seemed too conspicuous in the dish.
For a few dollars more, you can build your own tasting menu. If the fresh fettuccine’s on the menu, start there. The noodles are feather-light and made a perfect nest for lush chunks of Alaskan king crab, glossed with butter and sparked with lemon.
To some, Luci’s quirks—its cramped space and tacky photos, the obnoxious buzz of the icemaker and the loud conversations coming from the kitchen—are what give it its charm. To others, they’re the reason to dine at Ancora.