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Sunday, July 20, 2014

Luca offers upscale Italian dishes downtown

By Denise Neil
The Wichita Eagle

When the once-popular Uptown Bistro stopped working at 303 N. Mead in Old Town Square, owner Melad Stephan did what he does best: He shut down the ailing restaurant and replaced it with a new concept not widely available in Wichita — upscale Italian.

He brought in Aspen, Colo., chef Gianluca Sciagata, who created a menu stocked with refined Northern Italian dishes offered at the higher-end of the Wichita fine dining price scale.

So far, the restaurant has earned mixed reviews from its visitors, and on several visits, we found dishes to swoon about — but we also found issues to sigh about.

ON THE MENU: The dinner menu features gourmet pizzas, salads, pastas and “secondi” dishes made with veal, chicken, steak and seafood. It includes the sort of upscale dishes and ingredients that are less common in Wichita — carpaccio and gnocchi, clams and mussels, lamb and veal.

A separate lunch menu offers pizzas, salads, soups, sandwiches and a few smaller-sized, lower-priced entrees.

DON’T MISS DISHES: Nearly all of the dishes we sampled had fabulous flavor, but several of them were plagued by temperature problems.

One of our visits happened right before a big concert at Intrust Bank Arena, and the restaurant was packed. Our wine and appetizers came out quickly, but we waited for our entrees to arrive for more than 40 minutes.

The dish with the most potential that we ordered was the fish special of the night — “Pesce Al Cartoccio.” It’s listed on the menu and features a fresh fish- or seafood-of-the-day cooked in a parchment paper wrapping and served with risotto, clams, mussels, shrimp, tomatoes, squash and white wine.

Scallops were the featured seafood that night, and the waiter dramatically tore the circle-shaped parchment paper open at the table. (A few people, he said, had mistakenly identified the paper as edible.) The dish cost $27, and the three scallops were plump and huge. When we cut into them, though, they were completely cold in the center — not a pleasant state for a scallop. The rest of the dish, though, was amazing, especially the citrusy, buttery risotto that anchored it.

We also ordered the pasta of the day, a penne coated in a rich cheese sauce and tossed with asparagus and bites of shredded salmon. It was delicious but didn’t feel like $19 worth of food.

The rich brown sauce that coated the veal saltimbocca ($23) was beautifully balanced and a delight to scoop up with the accompanying gnocchi. Although the meat had a good flavor, it was surprisingly chewy for veal.

We blamed the concert-night craziness for the lukewarmness of our otherwise top-notch minestrone soup, topped with a surprising dollop of vibrant pesto. The 9-inch prosciutto pizza we ordered ($13) also arrived lukewarm but was otherwise as delicious as it was dramatic. Each slice was topped with a large ribbon of salty prosciutto, melty homemade mozzarella and peppery arugula. We’d order it again.

One of the dishes we enjoyed most was an appetizer call “arancini,” which are Sicilian rice balls. Each of the four in the serving was about the size of a racquetball and featured a crispy but not greasy fried coating surrounding a mixture of rice and homemade mozzarella. Dipped in an accompanying marinara sauce, the unique appetizer ($9) was both fun and flavorful.

AMBIENCE: The space is classy and modern and looks similar to Uptown Bistro but with the addition of several cozy booths. The lighting is dim, which I like, though I noticed several fellow diners using flashlights and cell phones to illuminate the menu.

PRICE RANGE: Dinner appetizers are $11 to $16. Pizzas are $10 to $13. Pastas are $13-$18. Entrees are $18 to $32 but average about $25.

SERVICE: Our waiter was very good — just the right amount of attentive, informed and apologetic about our delayed entrees.

Ratings reflect the critic’s judgment of the food, service and atmosphere in relation to the price. If you would like to nominate a restaurant to be reviewed, call 316-268-6327.

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