How tempting must it have been for David Uygur to keep doing what he was doing at Lola. After all, the 37-year-old Dallas chef had amassed quite a cult following, especially at the restaurant’s tiny Tasting Room at Lola. So admired were his eclectic, French-based dishes that when Lola’s owner decided to close the place, in October 2009, fans all but wailed and rent their garments. But over the next year, Uygur did some soul-searching. And he decided to change course. Which is how he and his wife, Jennifer, came to be chef and manager of their own regional Italian osteria, set in a charming South Dallas storefront and outfitted with secondhand furniture, colorful pillows, and shelves of homemade condiments and preserves.
As with so many restaurants these days, starters are the most interesting part of the menu. And of Lucia’s eight antipasto offerings, the best of the best is the salumi board. Uygur was known at Lola for his house-cured meats and sausages, and nothing has been lost in translation. The soppressata and coppa are silken and moist yet robust, but the creation that got our table’s full attention was the Calabrian-inspired nduja, a spreadable pork sausage spiked with orange zest and roasted jalapeño. In general, meats are the strength here, so if you have room for another starter, try the excellent crispy-edged seared beef tongue with a piquant salsa verde made with parsley, capers, and lemon.
In Italian fashion, the menu is divided into four courses, and by no means should you skip the pasta. They’re all traditional, particularly the wonderfully delicate butternut-squash-filled ravioli seasoned with sage butter and garnished with almond cookie crumbles (a custom I still think is weird). Not far behind is the al dente spaghetti topped by coarse, crunchy lemon-garlic-anchovy bread crumbs. But, sadly, the potato gnocchi came off semi-leaden, and the well-crafted risotto with caramelized cauliflower florets was sabotaged by hulking pieces of Gorgonzola piccante.
After the rousing success of the starters and some pastas, the main courses we tried seemed a touch uneven (though in all fairness the restaurant was still wet behind the ears when we visited). The sliced duck breast was aromatic with cinnamon and pepper and well set off by dabs of cherry mostarda, but it needed a bit more cooking for perfect tenderness. With the wild striped bass, the situation was reversed; the cooking was excellent, but a muddy-tasting purée of sunchokes swamped the fish’s delicate flavor. As for the well-handled (if too salty) roasted pork belly, I thought it should have been an appetizer. Four bites and I was ready for a nap.
As the evening wound down, we nibbled at two simple, comfort-food desserts: a bittersweet-chocolate pudding with shards of salted caramel and a buttermilk panna cotta with a balsamic drizzle. It must be daunting to shift your sails after having had a notable triumph, but if Uygur can make every dish at Lucia as good as the best, he could have a second hit on his hands. Beer & wine. 408 W. 8th (214-948-4998). Open Tue–Sat 5:30–10. Closed Sun & Mon. $$–$$$ W+