As my mother tells it, the beef tongue she ate as a child was a dish to be feared — one boiled into edibility, then choked down when money was tight. What I encountered during a recent dinner at Luca, an Italian restaurant that opened in July in Lancaster, Pa., was not that tongue.
This version melted in my mouth like an overpriced filet. The grass-fed meat had been brined for several days with garlic and peppercorns, braised for eight hours, then lightly charred over an oak fire and served with an Asian pear and mustard seed gremolata. It’s just the kind of dish that had Luca’s beleaguered hosts turning people away at the door at 5 p.m. In this town of 60,000, the restaurant gets booked weeks in advance — and that wood fire is a key reason.
“We’re recreating peasant food that was cooked by fire all over Italy,” said Taylor Mason, the chef and an owner (with Leeann Mason, his wife), who sources recipes from antique cookbooks he acquires in the old country. “You can turn your back on a gas stove and know how it’s cooking, but this is fully active — the wood is never the same, and the fire is never the same.”
I felt a primal reaction to anything on the menu that touched flame, including cocktails — my La Prima Volta was a frothy spin on a whiskey sour garnished with charred lime. Halved artichoke seared in the fire’s embers, with smoked paprika aioli for dipping, was so good I told our waitress I would like to lick the plate (she kindly offered to hold a sheet up so nobody would see). The farfalle pasta, with smoked and braised wild boar, squash and Grana Padano cheese, was overly salted, but I still wolfed it down.
Mr. Mason’s use of fire isn’t his only nod to history; he also uses heirloom produce, sourcing Italian seeds from every corner of the boot with the help of the 24-year-old founder of nearby Field’s Edge Research Farm. And he is working on a produce partnership with President James Buchanan’s Wheatland historic estate.
The restaurant’s soaring barreled ceiling, pine floor and pendant lamps are all original to the 1940s brick building. “It was a wholesale warehouse for Lancaster County’s Amish and Mennonite general stores,” Mr. Mason said. “There’s a soul to the space that would be hard to replicate.”
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