Photo by Doug Trattner
Clams at Acqua di Luca
Isn’t it ironic, as Alanis might say, that just as fully vaccinated diners have an increased desire to celebrate life’s biggest moments, there are fewer memorable restaurants at which to do so. For many of us, events like birthdays, anniversaries and promotions – including more than a year’s worth of milestones put on hold – call for the pomp, the elegance, the romance of a white-tablecloth restaurant. But 2020 decimated the fine-dining landscape, leaving a legion of ghost kitchens and fast-casual joints in its wake. As great as some of those fried chicken sammies might be, they hardly scream special occasion.
Thankfully, there’s Acqua di Luca, the latest restaurant from the husband-and-wife team behind Luca Italian Cuisine and Luca West. This shimmering downtown establishment, which for more than 15 years was home to XO Steaks, has more buzz than an angry beehive. Guests are immediately immersed in an atmosphere that is loud, lively and dripping with drama. The owners stripped the 140-year-old space down to the exposed-brick walls, unearthing in the process the property’s stately Warehouse District charm. Today, the restaurant is more open and buoyant than it has been in decades, with foldaway windows that better connect it to the cityscape beyond the panes.
By relocating the main entrance from the prominent corner at W. 6th and St. Clair to the eastern end of the building, the Semas reclaimed space in the main dining room that is typically lost to the host stand and incoming guests. The move also makes way for a new wraparound sidewalk patio that is one of the best dressed outdoor dining spaces downtown. The bar, which for years faced an interior wall, has been turned and moved so that guests seated there have unobstructed views of the Terminal Tower instead of a partition.
In true “special-occasion restaurant” form, the menu is unabashedly extravagant. The walk-in coolers are filled to the brim with shellfish, fin fish, veal, filet mignon, Kobe beef and menacing tomahawk chops. Those luxe foodstuffs are gilded with saffron, brown butter, Nebbiolo wine reductions and freshly shaved truffles. Jump right in with the Mare seafood platter ($90), which puts the typical seafood tower – often more tower than seafood – to shame. This triumphant starter is loaded with king crab legs, shrimp, mussels, clams, calamari, scallops and a whole lobster, all gently cooked in a bath of white wine, butter, garlic and herbs.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the mixed crudo ($45), a colorful platter of impeccable raw fish, starring sliced salmon, yellowfin tuna and scallops, joined by skillfully shucked oysters on the half shell. I’d suggest ordering the wine-steamed mahogany clams ($14) simply for the pleasure of dipping every last piece of bread on the table into the dreamy, buttery broth.
Acqua flexes its seafood dexterity in dishes like the stuffed sole ($38), four delicate, sweet filets wrapped around crab meat and spinach and served atop a pool of tomato cream sauce. The restaurant also offers whole Dover sole, which is deboned in old-school fashion at the table. Swordfish ($44), almost universally overcooked, arrives at the ideal temperature and texture, topped with microgreens and ripe tomato. A mile-high filet of beef ($41) is showered with freshly shaved black truffles that perfume the entire area with their intoxicating aroma.
If you’ve dined at either Luca location, then you’re likely familiar with (and thankful for) Lola’s expertise in the world of wines. Here, she has assembled an appropriately extensive list of glass pours and bottles, heavy on Italian labels as one would expect. Those selections are joined by draft and bottled beers and classic cocktails.
Management made a point of announcing that at present, more than two months post opening, the menu, staff and hours of operation still are not where they’d like them to be. If and when the supply chains open up and staffing returns to pre-pandemic levels, diners can look forward to an even more extensive menu as well as happy hour service, they say. Still, those issues did not stand in the way of unexpected touches like hot towels doused with lemon, birthday greetings scribbled in chocolate on dessert plates and group photos taken, printed and delivered before one even pays the tab.
Many consider this part of town hallowed ground with respect to Cleveland’s dining renaissance, where places like Piccolo Mondo, Greek Isles and Blue Point Grille demanded the attention of every serious diner. Now, 30 years later, Lola and Luca Sema are picking up the mantle by bucking trends, taking risks and doing their best to keep diners excited and well fed despite very difficult circumstances.
Acqua di Luca
500 W. St. Clair Ave., Cleveland