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The Gillilands celebrate their 10th anniversary by giving back to the city that has given them so much
Words by Joe Atkins • Photos by Nicholas Wray
Nestled neatly on that delicate transition between downtown and Midtown, Lucca Restaurant and Bar is already, as of our print date, halfway done celebrating a decade of success. Longtime restaurant workers, the Gillilands, opened Lucca with two paintings and an idea: large plates with locally farmed food.
The blue goose and the red bull still hang on the walls of Lucca today, and the aspirations of locally sourced meats and produce has inspired the Gillilands to open Lucky Dog Ranch in Dixon, Calif., producing pasture-raised beef. While this holistic vision might not seem all that original in today’s farmers market, farm-to-fork atmosphere, it is worth noting that this wasn’t always the case. No one wants to admit that they’re sacrificing quality for price, but this is a primary obstacle for restaurants. And not all wind up making the right decisions. The Gillilands have been able to sustain their vision with Lucca, open the equally successful Roxy Restaurant and raise their own cattle to supply their restaurants and others, and this speaks volumes.
Lucca is successful, hands down, but Terri Gilliland is quick to note they’ve been successful because of Sacramento. “We’re so grateful to be at this point,” says Gilliland. “We’ve weathered it all, especially the last five years. We’re incredibly grateful to the Sacramento community for the support.”
It’s clear that Terri enjoys being a restaurateur, in all its capacities. Before our interview begins, she lets me know that she has to travel to the family ranch in Dixon to aid some of the newborn calves—Terri serves as the de facto caretaker for new calf additions at Lucky Dog Ranch. One employee even told me in passing that it can be trouble, because once she’s named them, they’re no longer available for slaughter.
It’s this sort of devotion, not only to their livestock but to the details of their restaurants that have made the Gillilands, and Lucca in specific, profitable. “We got off to a great start,” explains Terri. “We had a lot of community support and friends.” She contributes the early success of Lucca to three factors: “Ron and I were experienced restaurant people; we’ve worked all aspects of restaurants. We have an exceptional group of people at our restaurants, especially our management. They walk the walk. And we were embraced by Sacramento.”
Over the last 10 years the Gillilands have fostered many relationships, the most famous being ex-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. While the Governator did have a large influence on their early success—many cigars have been smoked on their back patio—this relationship is not the most important. Terri mentions a boy who decided to celebrate his eighth birthday at Lucca, and his family has returned every year since. Terri mentions a couple who had their first date, their wedding and their child’s baptism all at Lucca. On rare occasion, Terri and her husband Ron will even hug patrons, mistaking them for friends.
“We’re both really affectionate people,” she laughs.
But when we talk about restaurants, what actually matters is food. This brings us to head chef, Ian MacBride, who has been at Lucca for seven years, shopping local markets, planning salads and entrées, plating dishes. Thinking about it, as a local, I can say that Lucca is unexpectedly one of the restaurants I’ve most frequented in the last six years, meaning MacBride has overseen a significant amount of my meals. And I’m sure I’m not alone. As MacBride states, “On a good Saturday, we’re putting out 500 dinners.”
That’s a lot of entrées, yet Lucca faces different obstacles in today’s economy. “There are so many more seats, and not necessarily that many more people downtown,” says MacBride, quick to list a handful of restaurants that have both opened and closed in the last seven years. The pivotal economic shift in 2008 brought a new set of challenges to the existing restaurant scene. “The dinners are the same,” says MacBride, “the lunches have slowed.” He points out that even the traditional high-end eateries have done most anything possible to lure more customers during the day. In 2013, even Ella has a happy hour.
Looking over Lucca’s menu, I think I’ve had almost every item, stealing bites from friends and family, as I’m wont to do. Lucca’s zucchini chips are my favorite appetizers in Sacramento. But until my most recent visit, I’d never tried the Lucky Dog Ranch hamburger, with cheese. This burger comes undecorated, with the accompaniments on the side: pickles, onions, lettuce, tomato. The produce is fresh, and the fries are nicely seasoned with a touch of salt, but the patty is unique. It doesn’t have that greasy, fat dripping everywhere quality so inescapable in most burgers. The meat is cooked nicely with just a touch of pink showing, and the seasoning doesn’t overpower the actual taste of beef. Clearly the burger is thought out from top to bottom, and for that alone I’d recommend it. Especially paired with a nice Ruhstaller 1881 Amber Ale.
The other surprise from my visit: roasted beet and citrus Salad. The bed of baby kale with olives, almonds, and ricotta, gives the beets a complimentary pairing. The beets themselves are smoky and sweet, and the flavor is rounded out with a coriander citronette, a dressing made of olive oil and lemon. If you’re a fan of beets, this is a must try dish. Likewise, the cheese flatbread with chickpea hummus, olive tapenade, and red pepper romesco, will disappear from one’s table immediately. These two small dishes couple together nicely. Also, for the more adventurous, Lucca might have the best escargot puff pastry in town, when it’s available.
For dinner, I’m a fan of Lucca’s spicy sausage. The Spicy Penne, with baby artichokes, olives, capers, roasted tomato, garlic, chili flakes and sausage; or the Paparadelle, with said spicy sausage and mushroom ragu, are both highly recommended. The pork chop with apple and dried cherry chutney is always rewarding. It’s moist, flavorful, and the apples and cherries provide a delicious sweetness to this entrée.
While I’ve never had a bad experience at Lucca, I’d describe the restaurant as good, specifically consistent, but not quite excellent. This seems to be the general consensus from my community as well. The atmosphere is open and inviting, the lighting well placed, the patio inviting, the bar easygoing and conversational. There’s no specific quality that seems to be lacking exactly. Lucca does what it’s been doing for the last 10 years well. While it’s not always the restaurant that pops to mind when we’re looking for a bite, it’s never disappointing.
It’s also clear that both Terri and head chef MacBride are conscious of this to some degree. In passing Terri mentions that it’s good to just realize what the restaurant is, what its strengths are and figure out how to take advantage of those in pursuing growth. MacBride is excited about the upcoming anniversary events, where he will show off all new items, moving completely away from the staples of Lucca’s menu.
It is, after all a celebration, as MacBride notes, “The 10th year is a benchmark. You know you’re doing something right.”
And owner Terri Gilliland is happy to give back to the city that has so long supported her restaurant: “We want to make a small contribution back to the community.”
For the next two Wednesdays, Lucca will be hosting the final pair of 10 year anniversary events, the previous two benefitting Verge Center for the Arts and Mustard Seed Spin.
On April 17, MacBride will reveal his “Eating Like a Kid Again” menu, and guests will enjoy a recycled fashion show; the proceeds for this event will benefit Sacramento Children’s Home. On April 24, the five-course fixed menu will have a farmers market focus, emphasizing locally sourced edibles; proceeds will be donated to Sacramento Farm-to-Fork. Both dinners start at 5:30 p.m., and seating is limited but available.