Italian food isn't exactly something Dallas is known for, yet the city's most-lauded restaurant is a tiny Italian spot in Bishop Arts. People are still clamoring, four years later, for a coveted reservation at Lucia, the brainchild of chef David Uygur and his wife, Jennifer. The reserved Uygur has eschewed much of the fame that local food writers are more than willing to shower on him, choosing instead to focus on making this tiny restaurant fit his exacting vision for Italian food.
It's not the Italian that you're used to. You won't find any gloopy bowls of fettucine alfredo or meatballs as big as your head. Still, Uygur's food is arguably some of the best Italian food in the south. I sat down to talk with the chef about how he's created such a successful and unique restaurant, pushing diners' boundaries with pork blood, and why he hopes that Lucia is the perfect neighborhood restaurant for the residents of Bishop Arts.
After four years, Lucia is still one of the hardest reservations to get in Dallas. What do you attribute that kind of success to? We've got great staff. My wife, Jennifer, works the front, and she's the face of the restaurant. She makes people feel welcome and creates a very convivial atmosphere in here. I'm very happy with the food that we've been able to put out. I've got some great sous chefs and cooks and I think that's probably it.
Do you think that your vision for the restaurant has stayed pretty true to what it was when you opened your doors? Have you had to make any big changes or compromises? I wouldn't say we've made any big changes as far as the menu goes, but we change things all the time. At first, I was going to have one less entree on the menu, and it seemed like people wanted more options on that part of the menu. So I added an entree. We haven't had a whole lot of change in format since we opened, not at all.
What about in terms of the food? Have you adapted your recipes to better match the palates of your diners? Honestly, I've been in Dallas for a little while now, so I feel pretty comfortable with what people like and don't like here. I was at Lola for six or seven years, so I was pretty aware of what Dallasites like to eat, and where I felt like I could push a little. I was able to get people to eat tongue, and that's pretty cool.
It seems like you've been able to do a lot of pushing, serving people pork blood. We've made pasta out of pork blood, desserts out of pork blood. Frankly, it's one of the things that I find most intriguing about running a restaurant. When you're able to get someone who comes into your restaurant who says "ew, I would never eat that," you somehow get them to try something, and they love it. Now, they'll try it wherever else they go, but they'll always remember they tried it at Lucia first. Gaining that kind of trust from your customers is really neat. That's the most rewarding way to keep them coming back.
Has there been anything that was too weird? Even the foodies just said no? I don't know, we got people to eat pig's blood for dessert. I really don't like lying to people about what we're making, so it says exactly what is in the dessert on the menu. It was one of our top-sellers for a while, but we change so much that it's hard to tell. We had it on the menu a few weeks ago, but before that, it had been about a year since we'd had the pig's blood dessert on the menu.
How often do you change the menu? Frequently, but never drastically. We'll always have salumi, always have a cheeseboard. We always have a risotto-type dish, a long-cut pasta, a stuffed pasta like ravioli, and a couple of wild cards. In those categories, we'll always have something that is fish, something vegetarian, and a pork dish. We'll change elements of the dish, like changing a cut of meat or the garnish.
How do you build a kitchen staff that's able to keep up with that constant level of change? Honestly, I think my staff likes changing so much, frankly. That's one of the things that keeps them so engaged. They're able to offer their input as to how the dish should go, or make suggestions for the menu. This is the most collaborative kitchen that I've ever worked in, and I'm really proud of that. I think that's awesome.
I'm very interested in how you were able to successfully build a restaurant that is so specific to the kind of food and service that you want to provide to diners. It doesn't seem like you've done much compromising on your vision of this food. There was never a chance of me putting a grilled chicken Caesar salad on the menu. That was the point of having a restaurant that is this small. If people need to go eat a grilled chicken Caesar, they can go somewhere else. They'll come to me for something interesting. I'm going after that market, and not really worrying about the rest of it. I was never going to compromise in that way, and I wasn't going to.
Your clientele has been totally okay with everything? Well, I would love it if I could get everyone to go for a tasting menu every day, but that isn't really my focus. Everybody has to compromise, and I don't believe people who say that they don't. But I like working within this framework, there's plenty of room to try out new things and really think about what it means to make Italian food in Northeast Texas.
Most of us grew up with Olive Garden and Pizza Hut. How difficult has it been to contend with that perception of Italian food? We're doing what an Italian would do with the list of ingredients that he can get in Dallas. The Italian-American food that everyone thinks of as "Italian food" is not bad, it's just not what we do.
Do you like Italian-American food? Is there good Italian-American food in Dallas? I do like it, but I don't know what is really going on here with Italian food because I don't go out and eat it. If I want Italian food, Lucia is my first choice. My second choice would be Nonna, and they do a little bit of the American-Italian food. We'll eat lasagna or whatever at home, my wife will cook it. I grew up in Northeast Texas, and my mom never used ricotta in her lasagna. She always used cottage cheese. I don't have a problem with that stuff, I like it. For me, a lot of the idea of having this restaurant and making so much of our food by hand, the point was to make stuff that people wouldn't make at home.
Being a born Texan, where does your passion for Italian food come from? A lot of it comes from my wife. She traveled to Italy to visit her aunt who was an opera singer when she was a teenager. She told me a lot about it, and that's kind of where it started. We've traveled over there a decent amount, and we go some place new every time we go. Each time we go, I think we've gone to the most beautiful place in Italy, and then we go somewhere else.