Inside Luca Modern Italian Kitchen
The reimagined Passion8 is more personal
The pastas at Luca, including the rigatoni, are made in-house.
Luca Modern Italian Kitchen
1523 Elizabeth Ave.
AL DENTE, the way Italians cook pasta, translates as “to the tooth.” It describes the feel of chewing on a correctly boiled noodle: somewhat stiff, cooked long enough that it kneads rather than crumbles or sticks between your teeth.
At Luca Modern Italian Kitchen, servers tell guests that the pasta is all made in-house, adding a gentle reminder that true al dente might seem like it’s undercooked to the American palate. With this introduction, there’s no way to interpret the pastas at Luca as anything other than precisely cooked.
Owners Luca and Jessica Annunziata gained a loyal customer base with Passion8, the farm-to-table restaurant they opened in Fort Mill, off Route 51, in 2006. They moved their small bistro to a much larger space in Elizabeth in 2014. The couple announced earlier this year that they were changing the restaurant’s name and menu, harkening back to Chef Luca’s Italian heritage. The new menu leans heavily on Italian dishes, from shared plates and pastas to protein- and seafood-focused entrées.
The carbonara salad is one of the most innovative salads in the city. It includes pieces of lardon—thicker bacon bits—and a creamy buttermilk dressing reminiscent of the flavors you’d find in the pasta dish. Cauliflower and raw Brussels sprout leaves supplement spinach, adding a crunchy texture to the base.
The menu is split up into several categories, from snacks to mains. Among the shared plates, the bison meatballs and grilled octopus stand out. Both have bright flavors; even the Parmesan fondue tastes light, despite being a cream sauce. One holdover from the menu at Passion8, apart from the cheese and charcuterie, remains on the menu: the much-loved calamari.
Diners must order generously from the primi piatti, or first course, section of the menu. Here, you’ll find the house-made pastas—all al dente, all worth ordering. The portions are small enough that a couple can order two to taste, along with an entrée. As with the rest of the menu, each item is listed in Italian with English explainers. The rigatoni with walnut pesto, sausage, and mushrooms has a distinct earthiness to it. The basil pasta with clams, zucchini, and garlic in a white wine sauce is easy to eat, with a freshness to it, and a basil aroma that hits the table with the plate. The sauce has a hint of saltiness throughout, giving it continuity with the clams.
The noodles are firm enough to hold the sauce, al dente in a way that only house-made pasta can be. With service that feels as though you’re eating with extended family, guests are guided through a truly Italian-inspired dining experience. At Passion8, diners learned about the ingredients on each plate and felt a connection to the farmers who grew them. With the same quality sourcing, that has not changed. However, Luca Annunziata no longer shies away from his own story, which started in Torre del Greco, Italy. You can taste the influence of his hometown; his time working in New York City, where he met Jessica; and the inspiration he finds in Southern ingredients in each pasta on the menu.
All, as promised, was to the tooth, but also from the cuore—the heart.