Savoring Experiences, Not Dishes
Published: Wednesday, September 5, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01
Dim lighting. Wine-lined walls. The heart of the bustling, always-busy Hanover Street in Boston’s North End. Lucca, one of the Italian neighborhood’s most famous locations, is a brilliant vanguard of its aesthetic, the image of a North End restaurant that would stick with a visitor long after food has been digested. The service is excellent. The wine is pricey enough that it has to be good. Even the music, an essential component of the Italian eatery experience, is timeless and relaxing.
And the food?
It’s there. The menu offers a standard slate of Italian meats and pastas (none of which are default-vegetarian, but you can ask). You’ll find the typical offerings–Pappardelle, Veal Milanese, and Orecchiette (which was the choice this evening)–and their tiramisu, though expensive at $9.00, is decent. One could not find much fault with the food.
But what the food lacks is something–anything–to separate it from that of the aisles of competing restaurants lining the sidewalks of the North End. Although the atmosphere is everything one might imagine when looking for an Italian restaurant, the eating is unremarkable.
But don’t take that as a reason not to attend. Rather than assert the apparent conclusion to that argument, allow me to elaborate on what Lucca offers that may make it worth your time.
Before determining whether this restaurant might be a good fit for a date, a business dinner, or an evening with friends, you should think about why, exactly, you might go to an Italian restaurant. Food? Italian food is popular. In fact, it’s extremely popular. According to data gathered by research company Harris Poll, it is the most popular type of ethnic food in the United States, and that isn’t all too close: 22 percent of Americans prefer Italian food to any other type of ethnic food, while the control (American food) is at 28 percent. On the East Coast, the numbers are even higher–31 percent choose Italian food. When one thinks about fine dining here in Boston, any list of the best restaurants will surely include multiple Italian establishments. Logically, as connoisseurs of the cuisine, we should want to eat only the best Italian meals.
The obvious weakness with my data is that it refers to types of food, and not to types of restaurants. But while we are appreciative of good food, we don’t attend restaurants just for that one sole purpose.
After all, the Internet offers thousands, if not millions, of different recipes. Trader Joe’s can sell you frozen gnocchi, and it’s not that bad. Pizzerias generally have decent pasta selections. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to get an acceptable Italian meal.
Yet those busy North End streets are packed with patrons going in and out of all of these restaurants, and they’re prepared to spend hundreds of dollars on a meal that, at times, will only be marginally better than something they could have enjoyed for a lot less money.
While we might think the food is what draws us, the experience of going to a restaurant is often more significant than fawning over what we eat. And while I found the food at Lucca to be good but not great, I struggle to think of many times when I’ve actually had a truly outstanding Italian meal. I have some occasions in mind, but even at those restaurants, I remember the experience of dining more than what I ate.
The food is good, the atmosphere is top-notch. Lucca is worth attending simply for the experience. You are more likely to remember that you attended the restaurant, saw the sights of the neighborhood outside of the opened windows, chatted with your friendly server, and spent a lot of money on a nice evening, rather than the not-so-troubling reality that your dinner was merely decent.