Luca e Lino restaurant.
(photo credit: PR)
Luca e Lino has gone through a number of incarnations on its way to its present iteration in downtown Tel Aviv. For years, it operated as the popular Italian restaurant Topolino in Jerusalem, at first kosher with certification and then kosher independently. Just a few months ago, the owner not only changed cities but also modified the cuisine, to that of southern Italy and, in particular, Sicily. Thirdly, in making the switch to “cucina meridionale,” the restaurant dropped any pretense of kashrut.
Besides kosher, there is another thing that Luca e Lino is not. It is not a place to go to try a new version of an old favorite: There is hardly a dish there – even among the antipasti and pastas – that most people will ever have heard of. But Israelis apparently are ready to venture out of their culinary comfort zone: The new restaurant is often full at peak hours (reservations are therefore recommended).
Luca e Lino does not have any specialty cocktails, but they will mix classic ones, including those with an Italian accent. The wine list boasts some nice Italian vintages, along with a minority of Israeli wines; a few are available by the glass, including a pleasant Pinot Grigio (NIS 39) and a refreshing rosé (NIS 43). There are also several beers on tap.
The restaurant’s entire menu (save for desserts) fits easily onto one typed page. Antipasti (NIS 64), a category that appears separately and before the starters, comprises six distinctive mezze, accompanied by bolema – an onion focaccia (served with olive oil and balsamic) that is fluffy and delicious.
Among the more memorable antipasti were a warm and velvety almond tehina, topped with ground fava beans; silky, multi-colored roasted peppers in a mellow balsamic vinegar; homemade ricotta cheese bathed in olive oil and crowned with a dab of harissa; and burghul on a bed of yogurt – pearls of a perfect al dente texture atop mild and flavorful sheep’s yogurt.
There are eight starters listed on the regular menu, along with four pasta courses, plus six main courses, which are either meat or fish/seafood dishes.
Vegetarians would have to focus on the antipasti and roughly half of the starters or pastas.
The appetizer that particularly caught our attention was the crabs in an orange, sambuca and young fennel sauce (NIS 44). The small softshell crustaceans, served in a skillet together with roasted onion and cloves of garlic, were bathed in a delicate, well-balanced sauce that delightfully enhanced the sweet white crab meat.
Half of the pasta courses were gnocchi, while one was the rarely encountered pici. The intriguingly named “pici pkaila” (NIS 52) featured the thick, hand-rolled pasta – like fat spaghetti – with spinach, mangold and arugula leaves seasoned with chili, drizzled with sheep’s yogurt and studded with pumpkin seeds. The result was a dish that was pleasingly complex, with an undertone of bitterness.
The star of the potato gnocchi salsicce (NIS 58) was the savory homemade beef sausage that imparted a lingering sensation of gentle heat. The pasta dumplings and meat were in a distinctive sauce of fennel seeds, tomato and butter that was surprisingly reminiscent of an Indian makhani masala sauce.
We had to request grated Parmesan for the two pasta dishes, which were enhanced nicely by the small strands of aged cheese.
Our choice of a main course was the lamb meatballs in lettuce soup with sour cream and passatelli (NIS 78). The succulent meatballs and pasta of bread crumbs, eggs and Parmesan were perked up nicely by the broth that was redolent with garlic and lemon, and characterized by a tang that recalled kubbeh hamusta soup.
The dessert menu revealed some shortcomings in the English menu when compared with the Hebrew one, most notably in the omission of the presence of a coffee sauce in the description of the chocolate ravioli (NIS 42). We were advised by the waitress that the dark cocoa and chocolate were bittersweet.
Combined with the coffee, the chocolate-filled ravioli created a rich mocha flavor.
A smaller but still recommended dessert is the cannoli (NIS 20): a single tube of crisp pastry filled with whipped mascarpone and lemon zest. This was a superb version of that singular Sicilian treat.
A good way to get introduced to Luca e Lino is by taking advantage of the discounted business lunch – two courses, plus a glass of soda water, for the price of a main course (served Monday to Thursday, 12:30 p.m. to 4 p.m.).
The writer was a guest of the restaurant.
Luca e Lino
20 Lilienblum Street, Tel Aviv
Tel: (03) 903-7277