Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A woman after my own heart

Has your heart ever led you to make a "crazy" decision?

When my maternal grandmother suddenly, in mid-life, opened a boarding house in Los Angeles so she could cook and gather and nurture people around her table, she amazed her family. She also lit my lifelong inspirational spark--women reinventing themselves.

Today that spark is reignited by Cathy Pavlos, a new friend and a sister member of Les Dames D'Escoffier International.

An architect, professor of architecture, and the department head at the University of Texas, Cathy Pavlos had a change of heart. Realizing that everything in that field had become computerized, and thus depersonalized, she had gone as far as she wanted to go.

Taking time off, she traveled extensively with her husband Elliott. "Wherever we went, I was drawn to the markets, the food shops and the restaurants in the cities--much more than the architecture. I could hardly help but notice that Orange County did not provide the kind of urban food experiences we found so easily in Chicago, San Francisco and New York, not to mention France or Italy."

Four years ago, wanting to share her own rich food legacy and provide something entirely new, Cathy completely changed careers by opening a restaurant and naming it Lucca after "the city in Tuscany where all the great olive oil comes from, and after my mom, Lucia, the feminine of Lucca."

It is not just any restaurant, but a unique and extraordinary restaurant, deli/charcuterie, cheese shop, and wine bar.

Here at Lucca Cafe I have enjoyed the best antipasto of my life. Below is my photo of her showcase featuring some specialty platters, an array of artisan cheeses, and a selection of Armandino Batalli's sausages (yes, Mario's father) from his salumeria called Salumi in Seattle. (My favorite is Salumi Agrumi brightly flavored with orange and cardamom.)

Cathy and recently I sat together at a rustic table by the window nibbling on Fleur du Maquis cheese and fruit when she began to tell me about her grandma's "Sunday Sauce" . . .

"My earliest memories of food and pleasure were Sunday dinners in the 1950's at my grandparents' house in Huntington Beach. My grandfather was a commercial farmer who raised tomatoes, lima beans, broccoli and alfalfa. I never tasted ‘store-bought’ produce until I went to college, so when someone told me to go get carrots, that meant going outside and digging them up.

“My mom has five sisters and I grew up with all of them.We had cousins in the fishing industry in San Pedro, the orchard business in Whittier, and some who owned a bakery in L.A. On Sundays, everyone would bring their basket of goodies to my grandma, Maria Bottari, to cook, because she was the best cook.

“We all sat around a big picnic table, anywhere from 10 to 30 people, and courses would just keep coming out of the kitchen. I remember so well the vivid colors, the textures, the aromas, the flavors, all the laughter, all the fun, and everyone helping out (even me). Whatever fish, veggies, bakery goods, wine and eggs were left were shared—no one went home empty handed.

“It never occurred to me that not all families lived like this. The lavish displays of food on Sundays seemed like magic because my grandma and the other women her age made it all look so effortless. As we were finishing breakfast we discussed what to make for lunch; while we finished lunch, we discussed dinner.

"When Grandma was cooking she was always happy, and she patiently described for me everything that she was doing and why it must be done in a particular way. Whether frying peppers, kneading dough, or preparing her Sunday Sauce, she never followed a recipe. My cooking lessons with her were intimate and we had a deep culinary connection, because she knew that her gifts were being passed on to someone who would cherish them. When she died, Grandma left me her stove--it is still in immaculate condition."

Lucca Café in Irvine (Orange County), California has a welcoming rustic décor. The lunch menu, less formal than dinner, offers remarkable tartines, imaginative salads, and reasonable pasta including penne with “Sunday Sauce.” On the menu as Grandma Bottari’s original Meat Ragu with Lucca Meatballs and Italian Sausage it is rich with tomatoes, meatballs, sausage and pork simmered for three hours and served over penne pasta with parmigiano—exactly as Grandma made it for more than 70 years.

"My big family, when gathered together, numbers close to 50. When I put a menu together for a big family party I had to come up that recipe for the Sunday Sauce (I told you that she never used a recipe). My aunts all argued over the taste, so we tried it many times until we got it just right. I remember asking over and over "Is that it? Is that it?"

Now everyone agrees: "That's it!"

"My parents come every Sunday for breakfast. When my cousins and brothers want some of Grandma's Sunday Sauce, they come in for lunch."

At dinnertime, Lucca becomes a European-style bistro serving cheeses and charcuterie along with "small plates" that keep cost down and flavors high. Cathy's husband Elliott Pavlos selects the wines for their extensive and imaginative list that offers more than 30 excellent wines by the glass.

“My grandma would certainly be very proud if she could see Lucca Cafe. And downright giddy that people come from all over just to eat her Sunday Sauce. But in the same breath, she'd cluck her tongue and say "I dunno Cati, alla dis education, and you wanna work inna da kitchen? Are you crazy?"

"I guess that I am, grandma, crazy just like you!”

Passion in one's heart paves the road to a crazy and adventurous journey!


For about one quart

My very favorite selection on the antipasto menu! I keep a covered glass dish of these in the refrigerator at all times and use them in salads or on antipasto platters, or as garnishes for meat entrees.

3 pounds Cipollini onions, blanched and peeled (See note)

1 1/3 cups turbinado sugar

1/3 cup water

1 1/3 cups red wine

1 1/3 cups red wine vinegar

1 ounce (2 tablespoons) olive oil

¾ teaspoon sea salt

scant ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 fresh bay leaves

4 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

Note: These are easy to find in farmers markets and supermarkets. (See photo below.) Trim and cut a little cross in the stem end of the onions. Drop them into a pot of boiling water for 30 seconds, then drain and dunk in a bowl of cold water and ice. The skins then slip off easily.

Bring water and sugar to a boil over moderate heat in a large sauepot and boil until the syrup turns deep gold. Remove from the heat and carefully add the wine. Return to the heat. Add the onions, red wine vinegar, oil, bay leaves and salt and pepper and simmer for about an hour. Transfer onions with a slotted spoon to a glass storage container. Boil liquid until reduced to about a cup and a half--10 to 15 minutes. Stir in balsamic vinegar and pour liquid over onions. Cool to room temperature, then store covered in the refrigerator. For best flavor, chill for one to three days.

To prepare in advance: These will keep for weeks in the refrigerator if you don't devour them right away.

News from Lucca: Beginning now, on the Second Sunday of every month Lucca is introducing Sunday Suppers, a four-course menu from a different country complete with its specialties and rare wines. (You may become a fan on Facebook by joining the Lucca Café Fan Page, or simply to be added to a special VIP list and receive mouth-watering newsletters.


  1. Diana I making a note of Lucca Cafe for date night with Tom next month!

    You have the most amazing collection of friends, I'm so happy you "share" them. :-)


  2. Great story. I need to make those cippolini.

  3. What a wonderful story. You have such a lovely blog. Thank you so much for visiting mine.