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I took my mother to dinner at Luce recently, and it was an enjoyable evening for both of us. My mother was happy, and surprisingly, so was I. Don’t get me wrong. I expected to love the rustic Italian food, and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s just that dining with my mother can be trying.

She allots a grace period of 10 minutes to all restaurants. If, after that time, the appetizers haven’t appeared on the table, she gets frazzled. Nothing is said, but she stops making eye contact. She shrugs, and her eyes roll upward as if to say, "I’m here. So where’s the food?"

Her behavior has become so predictable that when my sister calls the morning after my mother and I have dined, the conversation usually begins with "How was she?" What’s actually being asked is, "How quickly was she served?"

The answer to my sister’s question is, "My mother was great." She loved the food at Luce, and oohed and aahed over the dining room’s restored tin walls and tile floor. Owners Kristen Hallett and Peter Sclafani, who made several stops at our table to chat, charmed her; and she adored our waiter, who found our selections "cool," and only smiled faintly, when after reciting the wines by the glass - a selection of six that include a Chardonnay, a Sauvignon Blanc, a Pinot Grigio, a Chianti, a Merlot and a Montepulciano - she hesitated for a moment before ordering a Zinfandel.

It’s that friendly nonchalance and the deceptively simple Italian fare that makes this three-month-old restaurant so easy to love. Chef Andrew Blackmore-Dobbyn, former chef de cuisine of Savoy in Manhattan, has devised a Tuscan-inspired menu that uses fresh, local ingredients seasoned with a light hand. His cooking is a refreshing change for Park Slope natives who have grown weary of everything "parmigiana."

You know you’re in capable hands when a meal begins with great bread - in this case, chewy, addictive, twists flavored with anise and focaccia sliced into long strips and topped with good olive oil and salt. The little saucer of olive oil, that has become a staple in restaurants of all ethnic persuasions, has thoughtfully been replaced with a lusty white bean puree that pairs beautifully with the bread.

I wanted the calamari, and my mother, pretending to eat delicately, chose the spinach and fennel salad to start. Her salad, tossed with slivers of tart apples, pinoli nuts and shavings of Parmesan was given a wake up call with a sprightly, lemony dressing. The nuts gave the salad just the right crunch and the Parmesan lent the dish a slightly salty edge.

My fried calamari with lemon mayonnaise was served with a side of lightly dressed spinach, and a thick tomato concentrate. Familiar, yes, but the batter on the squid was as delicate as tempura, and the lemon in the mayo freshened the dish.

Choosing a pasta to share was no easy feat. I was instructed to "order light," but I had my heart set on the fresh pappardelle with braised duck, sausage, raisins and pinoli nuts. We were both happy. What could have been heavy and cloying was light, indeed, with a complex, sweet, savory flavor. The pasta was freshly made, and if you’ve lived this long without having freshly made pasta, you owe it to yourself to try it. The pappardelle was rich with eggy flavor and cooked perfectly al dente.

At the table next to me, a woman devouring the free-range chicken with pomegranate sauce looked up long enough to comment, "This is the best chicken I’ve ever had." If I agree with her here, I’ll sound fickle the next time I rave about another restaurant’s chicken, so I’ll keep my options open and say this: I liked the chicken at Luce a lot. The pomegranate sauce was pleasantly tart, and I enjoyed the sensation of the seeds popping in my mouth. The portion, which included semolina gnocchi and lightly sauteed chard, could have fed an Italian village.

Pan-fried skate, served in a light seafood broth, lost some of its crispness, but the mussels were briny and the tiny clams served with the fish were as sweet as candy.

Chef Blackmore-Dobbyn throws a few twists into a seemingly straight-forward dessert menu of five classic Italian selections (six if you count the piatti di formaggio, a selection of cheeses, fruits and nuts that can be ordered with a glass of port wine.) A delicate, bittersweet, chocolate cake paired with cinnamon-flavored pears made an inspired combination, and the concord grape sauce served with an ethereal, lemon flavored, ricotta cheesecake left my mother sighing.

So moved was she in fact, that she awarded Luce her compliment du jour, "It’s worth a trip from New Jersey to eat here."


Luce is located at 411 11th St. at Sixth Avenue. Pastas: $10-$12, Entrees: $15-$18. Luce accepts Visa, MasterCard and American Express. For reservations, call (718) 768-4698.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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