Caponata di Melanzane, photo by Turquesa Aros

On a warm summer evening last week, diners stepped into Luca d’Italia with high expectations. We sat tentatively at the large communal table, arriving in twos or fours for an evening with the Sicilian chef Fabrizia Lanza. We came expecting great Italian food. We got much more.

The night began with a welcome from chef Frank Bonanno, Luca d’Italia’s owner. He explained that the menu we were about to enjoy was Lanza’s entirely. Bonanno, head chef Eric Cimino, and staff would be in the kitchen helping and learning from Lanza, but the recipes were her own. It’s not easy for a chef to hand over his kitchen. Bonanno did so with grace and gratitude, striking just the right tone. The seamless execution that followed was a true labor of love.

Cavatelli with tomatoes and squash blossoms, photo by Turquesa Aros

Cavatelli with tomatoes and squash blossoms, all photos by Turquesa Aros

I never grow tired of the Italian first course, the antipasti. Seasonal and fresh, the antipasti best represents the regional variations in Italian cooking. We began with a Caponata di Melanzane, a traditional Mediterranean salad of eggplant, capers, and celery blended with a sweet and sour sauce and topped with hard-boiled eggs. Lanza served the salad alongside fried chickpea fritters and fried sage leaves. Taken together, the antipasti inspired conversation. Diners buzzed over the delicious Caponata sauce and commented that the chickpeas were neither greasy nor overly salted. For me, what stole the show were the fried sage leaves. An Italian classic, the sage transported me back to warm Italian summers and markets full of fresh herbs. It was paired with an easy drinking, food-friendly rosé, allowing the classic Sicilian flavors to take center stage. The antipasti loosened up the table and we began to glance eagerly into the kitchen to see what would come next.

Much to our delight, huge bowls of piping hot pasta arrived. When chef Lanza saw the  joy and anticipation on our faces, she joked, “I see you don’t like pasta.” The first pasta dish was a Tagliatelle with braised artichokes, Parmesan, and mint. The second was a typical Cavatelli dish, with tomatoes and squash blossoms. Both dishes were simple, rustic, and not overly sauced. The pasta was cooked to perfection, and the mint in the Tagliatelle filled the dining room with a fresh-from-the-garden aroma. A white blend, the Tasca d’Almerita “Leone,” accompanied the pastas. I was pleasantly surprised with how well the light, flavorful pasta paired with the fruit forward and crispy “Leone.” Sipping my wine I wondered if the next course could compete, or whether the pasta would steal the show.

Agrodolce Rabbit, photo by Turquesa Aros

Agrodolce Rabbit, photo by Turquesa Aros

I needn’t have worried. The main course of the night was a tender and well-cooked Agrodolce rabbit. Chef Lanza managed to tame the naturally gamey flavor of the rabbit with a dense sauce of orange, cloves, and bay leaves. Saffron-stewed potatoes, a fresh green salad, and green beans accompanied the entrée. The simple-looking green beans were a surprise hit due to the unique anchovy and breadcrumb topping. The green beans summed up Lanza’s cooking: simple, fresh, and ingredient-focused. Lanza didn’t need dozens of ingredients to impress her audience. Her restraint and well-executed cooking let flavors speak for themselves. Dessert was a delicious peach crostata with pistachios and vanilla gelato. We washed the meal down with the dark Tascante “Ghiaia Nera,” made from the Nerello Mascalese grape native to northeastern Sicily. Instead of stealing the show, the earthy wine was a nice pairing with the food, allowing Lanza’s rustic cooking to shine.

Tagliatelle with braised artichokes, photo by Turquesa Aroa

Tagliatelle with braised artichokes, all photos by Turquesa Aroa

All of the wines came from the Tasca d’Almerita winery on Chef Lanza’s family-owned Sicilian estate, Regaleali. The estate also houses Lanza’s world famous cooking school, which draws culinary giants like Julia Child and Alice Waters. If Lanza’s stateside cooking is any indication, I can only imagine how much I would enjoy her cuisine during a weeklong stay at Regaleali.

Even though I didn’t get to spend a week in Sicily, Lanza did transport us to Italy for the evening. Between Lanza’s cooking and Frank Bonanno’s impeccable hospitality, the dinner captured what Italian dining is all about. We arrived at Luca d’Italia as individuals hoping for some excellent food. We definitely found that. But while the communal table requires diners to share their food, we end up sharing much more. Old and new friends told stories of adventure, travel, and as food lovers always do, their favorite places to eat. Whether in Sicily or in Colorado, a perfect summer evening looks the same: good wine, good food, and good company.