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Keeping the oven fires burning

DINING REVIEW: Lucca Wood-Fire Bistro 

Keeping the oven fires burning

The modern pizza originated, as you probably know, in Naples, Italy. There's a long, global history of flat breads, but the story goes that it was in Naples that flat breads were first topped with tomatoes — and later buffalo-milk mozzarella — giving birth to what we now think of as pizza.

You'll still find Neapolitan pizzerias baking pizzas in wood-fire ovens, similar to the one used at Lucca Wood-Fire Bistro, 90 West Main Street in Victor. Lucca's wood-stove oven is the main focal point of its interior dining room, with a 5-foot deck encased in light, blocky stones. It burns up to 60 pieces of wood per day, fueled by green ash logs supplied by a local company, and reaches temperatures between 575 and 650 degrees.

The oven is a bit of a mixed blessing. Its heat yields tempting pizzas with well-browned crusts and a texture that's crisp with pleasant chew.  But the oven can only fit six small or three large pies at once.  With cook times ranging from 7 to 10 minutes, a pizza won't arrive at your table for 25 minutes and, during peak service, that wait can stretch to an hour.

On my visit, to bide time until the pizza was ready, my friends and I sampled some lighter fare, including the Caprese salad ($7.50). Four hefty slices of fresh mozzarella are paired with equally hefty beefsteak tomato slices and topped with basil. With tomatoes and basil in season, Caprese salads are made for summer eating. While full of flavor, in this version the tomatoes were a bit pale and the basil, cut in a chiffonade, looked dark at the edges, indicating that it had been allowed to sit for a little while. The mozzarella was brightly white, mild and milky — fresh and beautiful. Drizzled on top was deliciously syrupy balsamic glaze; the vinegar's acid was balanced by sugars that were concentrated as the vinegar was cooked down and reduced.

The balsamic glaze made another appearance, drizzled over the wood-fired pork shanks appetizer ($8). On-the-bone pork is tossed in a garlic-infused olive oil, sprinkled with seasonings, and fired in the oven before being plated with shavings of parmesan cheese and the balsamic glaze. The meat is plentiful and juicy; it would be easy to make this a light entrée. The balsamic glaze shines again, elevating the entire dish. Though the menu states that there are three pork shanks to an order, my appetizer came with four.

The best appetizer we sampled was the roasted pear salad ($7.50). Slices of warm, spiced pear top a bed of mixed greens tossed with balsamic vinaigrette, and are garnished with crumbles of gorgonzola cheese and candied walnuts. The mix of hot and cold, plus sweet, tangy, mild, and funky notes, makes this salad a winner. If there's any downside, it's that there are too many walnuts — there was a handful still on the plate after everything else was eaten.

If you visit Lucca, however, it will be the pizza that draws you in. You can smell it baking from the street. Dough is made daily by chef and owner Matthew Gervasi and his team. Sauces — traditional red, garlic and olive oil, basil pesto, and BBQ — are made in-house; the red sauce is made with the famed San Marzano variety of plum tomatoes, and are roasted in the wood-fire oven before processing.

The menu offers 10 specialty pizzas ranging from $10 to $24 depending on pizza size and toppings. You can also create your own pizza with a variety of topping choices, including the familiar red sauce, mozzarella, and pepperoni, to less typical choices like BBQ sauce, Lively Run goat cheese, or pineapple.

The Luigi specialty pizza (10-inch: $11.75; 16-inch: $22.50) pairs the traditional red sauce and mozzarella, with Italian sausage crumbles, tomato slices, banana peppers, and goat cheese. I was surprised at how well the goat cheese — which can sometimes evoke a ripe barnyard — harmonized with the peppers' acidic edge and sausage's oily richness. The toppings are spread nearly to the edge of the pizza; there is only a half-inch strip of browned, naked crust. Underneath, a few grains of cornmeal (which help prevent the pizza from sticking to the oven) are blackened, but they are few and far between and don't lend any burned flavors to the pizza.

The Funghi specialty pizza (10-inch: $12.25: 16-inch: $23.25) is not bad but underwhelming. It starts with a garlic and oil sauce and mozzarella, topped by roasted peppers, spinach, white and portabella mushrooms, prosciutto, and a drizzle of truffle oil. The vegetables were lightly cooked and would have benefitted from further roasting or sautéing to bring out additional flavor. The garlic and prosciutto were difficult to taste; odd as both of these have distinct flavors.

In the past year or so, Gervasi revised the menu, removing some items and adding others. One of the pizzas removed was the Mario, a simple pizza made with red sauce, mozzarella, meatballs, Parmesan, and fresh basil. Fortunately, it can be ordered through the make-your-own pizza menu, running you about $11.25 for a 10-inch pizza. There's just enough cheese and meatballs on the pizza to keep things flavorful without forcing you to eat a slice with a knife and fork. (I still miss seeing the Mario listed next to the Luigi on the pizza menu, though.)

In addition to salads and pizzas, Lucca offers a selection of wines and beers, Panini, and wood-fired chicken wings. The restaurant is popular year round, but seems to reach a fevered pitch in the summer, when the porch and patio are open for al fresco dining. It's nice to sit outside, catch a breeze, watch the traffic pass by — and wait for your pie to come out, hot from the wood-fire oven.

Share your food and restaurant tips with Laura Rebecca Kenyon on Twitter at @LauraKenyon, or email at

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