Third generation at Luciana’s keeps family legacy 30 years strong
By Andrea Papagianis
When Lucia put olive oil on the restaurant table, it was innovative. Waiters ran back-and-forth as customers requested butter for their bread, but the first generation Italian-American stayed strong, held her ground and figured people would eventually come around. She was right.
In 1976, Lucia “Lucy” Luhan became one of the first Orange County restaurateurs to offer fresh, handmade pastas. With her mother, Mary Vellara, in the kitchen of their What’s Cooking Bistro in Newport Beach, she served pasta, not spaghetti, to her eatery’s patrons. Pastas delicately highlighted by sauces, meats, cheeses and vegetables, Lucia held true to her mother’s traditional ways to introduce a community to Italian “food culture.” And for the last 30 years, things have remained relatively unchanged.
“The Italian recipe is simple, its good ingredients and creativity,” Lucia Luhan said.
Lucia expanded her restaurant portfolio with a second location in the What’s Cooking line in Coast Mesa. She’d follow it in 1983 with Luciana’s Ristorante in Dana Point. Straying slightly from the simple, take out café with a deli and small bistro tables, Lucia kept it simple and created an Italian, Mediterranean escape along the Southern California coast.
This month Luciana’s celebrates its 30th anniversary, and although Lucia is no longer the face in the day-to-day operations, her name and son, Jorge Luhan II, ensure her vision and the Italian “convivio,” literally translated to “living together,” tradition of gathering around the table live on.
“‘Knees under the table,’ as my father used to say,” recalled Lucia of her family’s meals at the table.
The Varella family left their home in the Abruzzo province, east of Rome and the Lavio region in central Italy in the late-1930s, but like many immigrants brought their cultural customs along. Among her favorites, Lucia recalls meals stretching for hours, her mother’s art of homemade pastas, garden, cellar and her values that helped bring numerous family members stateside.
Mary began making pasta when she was just 6 years old. It was a skill that became second-nature after decades of mixing, rolling and cutting the creations daily. From the family’s first restaurant in their settled Connecticut to Luciana’s, Mary was a regular fixture in the kitchens making her pastas. Ignoring her daughter’s pleas to use a machine, Mary held firm to the way she was taught, crafting each pasta hand.
“You cannot make it (pasta) as good as you can by hand,” Lucia said. “There is a warmth of the hand that makes the dough better, and anyway, she makes it faster by hand than by machine.”
Well into her 90s Mary continued her artisanal craft, that for over 27 years, patrons throughout the family’s Orange County restaurants feasted upon. For more than a decade after Jorge and his brother Jason took over the operations, Mary was unrelenting. But as her dexterity dwindled and it became increasingly more difficult to navigate a bustling restaurant kitchen, Jorge “fired” his grandmother, he quipped.
“We have kind of retired her for now. If we needed her to help she could, but it’ll be just a little bit slower than before,” Lucia said of her mother’s pasta making, who just a few years ago shared her craftsmanship with adoring visitors of her daughter’s Italian countryside cooking school.
In 1985, Lucia took the family operation international. Long waiting to return to the homeland her parents left behind, the Connecticut born and raised Lucia jumped on an opportunity and purchased a forgotten 500-year-old Tuscan farmhouse. Sitting upon 18-acres of olive groves, Lucia began picking and pressing her own olive oil that same year. Luciana’s has been serving the Villa Luciana oil ever since.
Each October, Lucia takes to the groves and handpicks olives from the trees for pressing. It’s a knowing where food comes from and how it is made that goes back to mankind’s beginning. The concept, Jorge believes, his mother and grandmother were ahead of the times in bringing fresh produce, handmade items and the Mediterranean diet to the Orange County table, when society had strayed.
“You look at trends and you get to watch them come full circle,” Jorge said.
The Luhans now have plans to market their line of oils. With European Union credentials obtained, they hope to have the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval in time for December bottling. Lucia’s passion for food and culture is apparent when she talks about olive oil.
From mislabels and rancid products to health benefits and recipes, she has spoken on the olive oil topic for decades. A 2010 study from the UC Davis Olive Center found that 69 percent of extra virgin olive oil imports sold by California retailers failed to meet a U.S. Department of Agriculture quality standard.
And while some are better for frying than drizzled over vegetables, Lucia said the healthy oils are pungent, bitter and slightly sting the back of your throat.
While officials work out the olive oil regulation kinks, Lucia is happy to see her mother’s diet, heavy with the medicinal and nutritional “liquid gold”—for stomach aches, moisturizer, popcorn, pasta and scrambled eggs—olive oil has become a prominent part of American society.
“America gave me a lot of things, but it did not give me food,” Lucia said. “I was born and raised here, met my husband here and raised my children here. America gave me everything. But thank god my mother gave me food culture.”
Mary’s time-honored craft is one Lucia fears will soon be a lost art, and her traditions forgotten. The family’s matriarch turned 100 this month, and celebrated her birthday surrounded by generations on Sunday, October 13. Deeply rooted in Italian customs, Jorge, who has led the Luciana’s operations for 20 years now, said the way of the past is here to stay.
“We have changed slightly with the times, but we will never leave behind who we are or what we are,” Jorge said.