East Tosa’s Ca’Lucchenzo makes fresh pasta the year’s most welcome local food trend.

The room is brighter and seems larger than when it was the comfy, casual Juniper 61 in East Tosa. From our four-top in the corner, we watch vessels sailing out to different tables here at the new pasta restaurant Ca’Lucchenzo. Thick hunks of fresh focaccia and bowls inches deep in al dente carbs are topped with sauces and fresh herbs. I haven’t looked closely at the menu yet, but I know one of the dishes we’re ordering – Sardinian gnocchi with lamb ragu. My friends had been talking about it ever since they had it months ago at a Milwaukee chefs dinner where Ca’Lucchenzo chef and co-owner Zak Baker had prepared the dish as one of the courses.

Ca’Lucchenzo
W. North Ave.,
414-312-8968
HOURS:
Tues-Thurs 5-9 p.m.;
Fri-Sat 5-10 p.m.
PRICES:
Pasta and other large
plates $16-$25
SERVICE:
Friendly, attentive,
quick
RESERVATIONS:
Accepted

Before opening their own place in May, Baker and his spouse and business partner, Sarah, worked for other local restaurateurs, meeting at the start of their careers at Ristorante Bartolotta in downtown Tosa. Most recently, they were operating partners of the Pizza Man restaurants. Playing to their strengths, Zak runs the kitchen at Ca’Lucchenzo while Sarah directs the front of the house, visiting tables with a welcoming smile.

The space hasn’t been expanded, but it is more effectively used, with a square-shaped pasta bar where diners can watch the kitchen staff roll and shape pasta occupying the dining room’s focal point. Beyond table and banquette dining, the wine bar offers an extra handful of seats to enjoy various snacks and antipasti, skillfully prepared pastas and homemade dolci.

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Zak’s thick, chewy focaccia ($5), slathered generously in olive oil, is a good bready beginning, but you don’t want to fill up too much before the main attraction. For that reason, start with the warm griddled octopus and chickpeas drizzled with ’nduja vinaigrette (’nduja is a spicy, spreadable salami), $14. Slow-braised in the oven with olive oil, garlic, bay leaf, thyme and lemon peel, the uniformly tender mollusk is served as a large tentacle. It’s the best octopus I’ve ever eaten. But if you like arancini (deep-fried, filled rice balls), you have to try the fontina fondue-filled fritters ($12). The crispy shell releases the oozy, delectably earthy cheese center.

The seven pastas on the midsummer menu ranged from spinach tagliatelle (ribbons) with white veal ragu and Parmigiano-Reggiano ($19) – simple and rich, with a heady stew sauce – to a dramatic and delicious squid-ink spaghetti with a terrific seafood white-wine sauce spiked with Calabrian chiles ($20). The ravioli is for stuffed-pasta lovers, delicately savory-sweet and not too heavy. The pillows, stuffed with goat cheese and Swiss chard, are bathed in brown butter walnut sauce ($18). Still, there is another pasta that I can’t get out of my head: the gnocchi, owing to the dusting of crisp anchovy breadcrumbs and pecorino cheese and the tangy-salty relationship between the wilted greens and the lamb ragu ($19).

Is there room for dolci after all this? Yes, if it’s feathery-light vanilla panna cotta (milk custard) with blueberry conserve and pistachio shortbread ($7). It feels like the perfect-weight shawl for a still-balmy September night. And generous helpings of soul-comforting pasta will make the cold nights to come a bit easier to bear.

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“Give It A Twirl” appears in the September 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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