Tuscany Meets Millsboro

Luca Ristorante stands out in central Sussex County thanks to traditional Italian recipes, its charming atmosphere and a classy wine bar.

The organic pork loin is layered with fennel, garlic, rosemary, olives and in-season roasted roots. Photograph by Thom ThompsonLuca Ristorante and Enoteca
303 Main St., Millsboro

Appetizers $9-$13, pasta $15-$21, entrées $23-$35

Recommended Dishes
Braised duck ragú pasta, wood-fired pizzas, braised wild boar

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All seemed quiet and dimly lit around down-town Millsboro on a chilly Friday night. Wind whistled between darkened storefronts and a few men milled around the gentle buzz of the ice cooler parked outside the Corner Store liquor shop.

Here the town’s business district features a few sturdy antiques stores, and a diminutive gift shop that actually calls itself Slower Lower. Nearby, the classic Georgia House stands as perhaps Millsboro’s best-known restaurant, but it is undeniably steak-n-seafood antiquity. There are a few others like it nearby, where they serve a mean rockfish, or cream of crab soup, but nothing quite like Millsboro’s newest addition, Luca Ristorante and Enoteca.

First-time restaurant owners David and Christine Jones took a calculated risk when they poured immense time, labor and funds into making Luca come to life last fall, melding modern, upscale dining ideals with traditional Italian recipes. A destination restaurant, it would seem, in a pretty restaurant-barren destination.

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Owners David and Christine Jones toast the antipasto.  Photograph by Thom ThompsonTheir labors, however, resulted in one of the most pleasant dining surprises I’ve encountered in quite a while.

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Luca turned on the charm instantly. Nudging open the doors of this little corner storefront, the former site of a stately 1917 Delaware Trust bank, revealed a glowing milieu. Wine glasses clinked as the crowded dinner service percolated, and customers turned their attention to pressed tin ceilings, bathed in a shimmering copper patina. Craning downward, there are the ancient colorized portraits of David’s great grandparents, Carmella and Luca himself.

Already there was so much to take in. As wine lists arrived, the energy and vibrancy inside the 50-seat dining room began to grab hold. Etched wine glasses, filled at the Cruvinet system, hit the table and mandolin music serenaded from hidden speakers.

The wait staff Pac-Manned between tables and around Luca’s largest, er, conversation piece: the old bank’s original 6-by-10-foot steel vault. A solitary table stands inside.

A round of house salads materialized, along with a saucer of wild boar shank that had been braised in lavender and tarragon. Subtle floral notes weaved their way between threads of meat, which crumbled and melted away from the bone. A starter of such warmth and complexity set the bar high, but chef Joe Churchman’s next volley smacked it into the stratosphere.

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Chef Joseph Churchman (foreground) makes red sauce while sous chef Ian Smith works the wood-fired oven.  Photograph by Thom ThompsonThis was braised ragú di anatra brasata, duck ragú pasta, one of just four selections of homemade pasta available nightly. All were solid. None, though, quite reached the exquisiteness of Churchman’s duck ragú—handmade ribbons of fazzoletti pasta, polka dotted with fresh herbs, and tangled in a mess of shredded duck meat. Succulence wrapped around each noodle, bridled only by the earthy twang from shaved pecorino Abruzzese.

Ravioli di Giorno, perfectly al dente packages bobbing in a brown butter sauce, relinquished their light butternut squash purée filling that was together understated and delicious. Intermittent quick-fried sage leaves crunched and melted like wafers between bites of pasta. For all the balance and sophistication of Churchman’s other pastas, Gorgonzola gnocchi faded slightly in comparison (for a $21 dish, anyhow), its mushy texture thwarting an otherwise tasty Gorgonzola-tomato sauce.

But that was, it turned out, the closest thing to a misstep Luca’s kitchen committed during my several visits. Churchman’s sharp focus on simple flavors didn’t waver as he transitioned from pasta to red meat and beyond. Crispy grilled artichoke hearts and creamy broccoli grooved between tender slices of hanger steak. Clearly a man who likes his fowl, Churchman also offered confit duck leg and quail under brick among his entrée options this winter, along with salt-crusted branzino and porchetta.

Equipped with a brick oven (mercifully, not located in the brick-lined bank vault), Churchman’s crew delivered crisp pizzas as part of its regular Wednesday night study on uptown pies. Thin crust, fortified to crispy, charred perfection, held firm under sodden and decadent braised beef short rib, confit trumpet mushrooms and shaved Parmesan, and duck confit with balsamic reduction. Even as our region flings dough balls like mad in the midst of a craft pizza renaissance, Luca’s pies stood out among the best.

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Angie Wilson serves guests in the dining room, which is decorated with portraits of David’s Sicilian grandparents, Luca and Carmella Rao.Desserts, while lacking the seductive twists of savory menu items, were nonetheless delicious, particularly house-made pistachio gelato. And the all-Italian wine list is beyond user-friendly, thanks to evocative descriptions, and affordable thanks to the bar’s Cruvinet system that renders most selections available by the glass.

Chef Churchman, a young Rehoboth Beach native who has worked at the exceptional Eden, embodies the progressive culinary ideals of his hometown. But Millsboro?

I asked musician Paul Cullen, who helped open Luca as its first general manager, what sort of impact the restaurant might have on the town. He assured me, “There’s nothing like this place around.” Cullen has since vacated his post to focus on his music career, but his sentiment was echoed by Luca’s exuberant wait staff, who seemed to sense something great was beginning to take shape in Millsboro.

One waitress, a New Castle County transplant, beamed wide-eyed with excitement when she reported folks from around the region were discovering their little slice of Tuscany in Western Sussex. Another server commuted to work from Ocean City, Md., bypassing the coastal resort towns for a place she thought would stay busy during the off-season. That’s faith.

Is Luca the sort of place that can put Millsboro dining on the map? Bank on it.

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