Creative Italian-American Dishes
by Valerie Sinclair
Frequently, the attractiveness or elegance of a restaurant is in sharp contrast with the food therein. This is certainly true of Loucas, a three-year-old restaurant in a strip mall in the Middlesex County town of Edison.
After one sees the sign on the outside awning designating this as an Italian-American restaurant, and the crowded, noisy family-style dining room inside, it is easy to imagine large portions of spaghetti and meatballs or eggplant parmesan being served. Instead, the food is creative, very well prepared and attractively served.
Loucas is owned by Loucas Sofocli and Alex Charalambous, and although they were both born in Greece, they apparently decided that Italian and American food would be more popular than Greek in this part of New Jersey. Judging by the people waiting for tables as they clutch their bottles of wine (the restaurant does not have a liquor license) the partners made the right decision.
The menu is Italian orientated, but American dishes like excellent boiled crab cakes or sautéed soft-shell crabs with browned almonds are given a French touch with a beurre blanc (white butter sauce). Portions are enormous, and prices are fair. A three-course meal without tax, tip, or beverage averages $25.
Among appetizers, count the crisp fried shoe-string zucchini sprinkled with freshly grated Romano cheese. Or try large portabello mushrooms grilled until crisp, then sliced and sprinkled with lemon olive oil. Recommended are the mushrooms stuffed with fresh crab imperial, grilled duck breasts sliced and served on a bed of greens with a honey vinaigrette was excellent, and mesquite-grilled shrimp similarly served with a light balsamic vinaigrette were also good. Seafood salad, a mixture of shrimp and calamari, was tasty, but the portion was meager compared with most others.
Sautéed broccoli rabe with sun-dried tomatoes was delicious, but a gluey crab soup was not.
Main-course highlights included a one and a half inch thick swordfish steak, either sautéed Sicilian style with capers, garlic, tomatoes, lemon and olive oil, or grilled and served with a good French Onion mustard sauce. In each case the swordfish was perfectly cooked, which is no small feat.
A salmon fillet was wrapped in what appeared to be a crisp crust of mashed potatoes, and a huge veal chop was served with broccoli rabe and sun dried tomatoes. Sun-dried tomatoes appeared in so many dishes and in such quantity that we came to the conclusion that either they are a signature ingredient of the restaurant or the owners had a very good deal from their supplier.
Rack of lamb (six ribs), sliced and beautifully arranged, was served with a thick mint flavored honey sauce on the side.
Less successful main courses included Dover sole, which was overpowered by its topping of roasted eggplant, sun dried tomatoes and balsamic vinegar. An enormous bowl of bouillabaisse containing every shellfish imaginable contained so much Pernod that it was virtually the only discernable taste, and the veal rolled around proscuitto and cheese in a porcini and Madeira sauce was tough.
Most pastas were excellent. The tricolor (red, green and white) ravioli rounds containing a dense filling of lobster and crab were served in a creamy tomato sauce with a basil and shitake mushrooms. Cappellini was listed with either arugula, sundried tomatoes and shrimp (very spicy), or with a white clam sauce plus mussels, shrimp and lobster. And cavatelli with broccoli, garlic and olive oil was toothsome and addictive.
Desserts are almost a non-event. Only a mediocre cheesecake and tiramisu are made on the premises. Sorbets are probably the best bet. The waiters and waitresses in black pants and tuxedo shirts, black bow ties and white aprons wrapped around their waists were outstanding. Now if only the owners would remove a half a dozen tables, the restaurant would be more comfortable and perhaps be quiet enough not to have to shout to be heard.
Until then, this popular restaurant is a good place to come with the family or with a group of office friends, but not for either a quiet romantic dinner or a business dinner, which is unfortunate because the food and the service deserve better.