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Elkhart Dining Days 2015: Family meal at Lucchese's stirs memories

More than 20 years of doing interviews is a lot of questions and a lot of conversations.

I struggle to remember each one. That’s why we have clip files and now, the Internet. 

But I still remember one of the first food interviews I did. In the late 1990s, I talked by phone with John Lucchese, who founded Lucchese’s Italian Restaurant more than 30 years ago.

We talked about the chicken linguine salad and whether it was really a salad. You could say that was the start of my food writing career. You could also say, accurately, that I’ve eaten a lot of Lucchese’s food over the years.

I had kitchen privileges even before I became a food writer. I was close to the family that operated the downtown location and then moved it to C.R. 17.

I still miss that spot along East Jackson Boulevard, but the floor was sinking into an aqueduct and the family wanted to expand, so I can’t fault them for moving.

On Monday, I went to the restaurant with family, including a niece who moved to the area recently and hasn’t yet heard all my Lucchese stories. So during dinner, she was regaled. She listened politely. Perhaps most importantly, she really liked the chicken linguine salad.

Lucchese’s is making fresh pasta again and, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the difference between fresh and dried is like the difference between a lightning bug and lightning. Fresh pasta is more tender and takes sauce differently. It’s a marvel we should indulge in when we can.

The chicken linguine salad is pasta with poppyseed dressing, vegetables and a chicken breast. It’s hearty enough to be a meal but light enough to be called a salad and it’s perfect. 

Lucchese’s, led by Michele and other family members, has appetizers, a couple salads, entrees and desserts on this year’s Elkhart Dining Days menu.

The restaurant’s lasagna is one of my standards for what lasagna should be: firm, flavorful and filling. Lucchese’s has a seafood version on the Dining Days menu that’s a massive piece of goodness. The pork tenderloin was nicely cooked and the squash alongside was a nice touch. The sausage fondue is creamy and rich. The white Italian bread it comes with is good, but not nearly as good as the bread John used to make at the restaurant.

I don’t get to talk to John as often as I once did. He’s retired. It’s time for a visit to the lively guy — he’ll tease me about The Elkhart Truth. I’ll try to scorch him back. It’s our way.

He’s one of the people in this town who taught me that freshness matters, that roadside stands and small farmers offer some of the best raw ingredients. I also learned because of him the only way to prevent an Italian such as him from pouring you more wine is to put your hand over the top of the glass. He’ll be generous until he risks wasting wine. He and his wife, Kathy, created a restaurant that many folks love and continues to do good things in Elkhart.

Elkhart Dining Days, with its range of specials through Nov. 7, is just one more excuse to try it.

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