At the corner of Randolph and Cleveland, two authentically Italian restaurants don’t need to compete. The reason? They’re both owned and run by the Smith family.
It started with newlyweds Al (an Irishman) and Lucille (an Italian) Smith moving to southern Italy in the 1960s, and soaking up the culture for over 10 years before returning to Saint Paul. Here, Al says, “We were surprised at how different Italian-American food was [compared] to real Italian.”
Before Al’s retirement in the ‘80s, “We did dabble … in a restaurant in Saint Paul called Alfredo’s,” says daughter Maria. The Smiths were one of three partners in this restaurant that was actually more of a bar, and not at all what Al and Lucille wanted to do. Then, a spot opened up that used to be The Club Bar, a college hang out spot near St. Catherine’s University, and in 1988 the Smiths signed the lease and it became Ristorante Luci.
“It was partly a function of what we’d experienced in Italy and couldn’t get here,” Maria says. But it was also a result of Al not being ready to fully retire, and a simple passion for food. Lucille, who passed away in November 2015, “was gifted in the kitchen, always has been. She’s self-taught, and while she lived in Italy learned that much more,” says her daughter.
Ristorante Luci quickly became a family affair, with the siblings jumping in. Daniela started baking, Anna was serving, Maria was serving and hosting, and Steve was serving but decided to jump into the kitchen.
The restaurant was busy immediately, Maria says, mostly because they were offering authentic Italian --something new to the Twin Cities. “We also introduced the pre-fixe dinner,” with four courses, she says. “It was something that no one else was doing.”
But the kitchen was “teeny,” Maria says. They wanted to expand to be able to give diners even more, but the lease, and the space, made it impossible to do at that location. So, 10 years after opening Ristorante Luci, Luci Ancora opened across the street. “It was kiddy corner, which we were unsure about,” she says, but they were able to own the space, and the two restaurants were able to coexist well.
The differences between the two restaurants were, at first, quite strong. Ristorante Luci served southern style Italian while Luci Ancora served northern style.
The cuisines differ, Al says. “The north is richer, and uses more dairy and meat. The south has more vegetables in the dishes, and more fish.”
“They’re more olive oil based, too, with little dairy,” Maria adds.
But today, the menus are identical. “The reason for that is because of the renewed focus on making handmade pasta,” Maria says. Time and labor go into the pasta, so now diners can get the best at both locations. Atmosphere, however, varies. Ristorante Luci is old-fashioned, like a trattoria, and Luci Ancora is modernized and recently gained a bar.
The food is traditional and simple, the Smiths say. “There’s complexity and simplicity,” Maria says. “Our philosophy has always been simple foods. Only a handful of ingredients in each dish, just because that’s how we were raised. That’s how my mother cooked, and that’s what we experienced living in southern Italy.”
Part of what makes that work is the handmade pasta. They do a lot of dishes well, Maria says, but regularly requested are a handful of pastas. Butternut squash ravioli, fettucine Alfredo, and pappardelle are prime examples.
Simplicity and passion have driven the restaurants since they opened.
“I can tell you what I like,” Al says. “I do like to meet people.” He and Lucille became good friends with many of the customers over the years. And even Lucille, who was less of a social butterfly, made the rounds. “And of course she was beautiful, so that made a big difference.”
Food and conversation go hand in hand, Maria says. “It’s the relationships that come with the food that makes it so special. It’s part of the reason we’re in the business.”
Though, Al will point out, it’s not always easy, it’s worth it. At Lucille’s funeral, the priest summed it up best, Al says. “ ‘Food, and especially Italy, is about love. You can’t think of food and not think of love along with it.’ And it’s true.”