Dining out on Christmas Eve is a family tradition that dates back to my now distant days in New Jersey. Thankfully, my father and stepmother Jane relocated to South Carolina, so we switched from The Ryland Inn to The Woodlands, a spectacular resort and inn on the outskirts of Charleston. The first chef that we encountered was Ken Vedrinski, who turned out to be the best chef during our nine-year run. He left to open Sienna, which showcased his Italian heritage with contemporary flair, before advancing to Charleston and Trattoria Lucca, which would have to be considered one of the best casual Italian restaurants in the country. After enjoying Vedrinski’s food across the Lowcountry, we finally returned to his Christmas Eve table for the Feast of the 7 Fishes, aka La Vigilia.
Reindeer candle holders illuminated the way to our bottle of Follo Prosecco. My father opted for a bottle of Brut Rose ($44) instead of Extra Dry. We quickly turned our glasses upside down since he was fixated on getting a prime spot for the second of the night’s three seatings.
I learned that Vedrinski has his own holiday traditions. He grew up in Columbus, Ohio, but spent six Christmas Eves at his grandparents’ house in St. Petersburg, Florida, which always involved fresh seafood. For example, Grandpa used to catch sheepshead and prepare it five ways.
Each jam-packed seating was allotted a two-hour window. No wonder the antipasti came out so rapid-fire, beginning with a sumptuous puree of bacalao with breadcrumbs, scallions, potatoes, poached garlic and of course plenty of salt cod.
Tradition would dictate that we should order white wine with a seafood feast, but my stepmother and I opted for a bottle of Cabanico Alovini, 2004 Aglianico ($54), a light red that paired well with a lot of the meal’s bold tomato sauces.
Over the years, I’ve encountered a handful of great pork-stuffed calamari dishes, including Le Lys in Bangkok and Thai Nakorn in Orange County, but this may have been the best, complete with tender bulbs of calamari packed with juicy pork cheek and submerged in a tomato-based broth flavored with olives and capers.
Vedrinski’s grandmother used to make crab Bolognese, shells and all, which used to freak out the kids on Christmas Eve. He opted for variation with al dente rigatoni and minced scungili, conch, which had bold flavor and the evening’s only true chile heat, courtesy of fragrant Calabrese chilies. A shower of Pecorino Romano and hand torn basil completed the plate.
The menu was supposed to feature swordfish, but we received barrel fish, a type of grouper, which our waiter described as the “accidental catch.” This turned out to be a happy accident since I prefer firm white fish to meaty swordfish. The filets sported tantalizing golden color and came with a tangy piccata sauce involving lemon juice, tomatoes, capers and more, plated on a bed of creamy Parmesan polenta.
The food was all very good and the vibe was festive, but the most amazing aspect of Trattoria Lucca’s Feast of the 7 Fishes may have been the cost. Eight generous helpings only cost $56 per person, which is beyond unthinkable in cities like New York or San Francisco, and still bordered on charity in Charleston. Hopefully Trattoria Lucca becomes a new Lurie holiday tradition.
FYI: Vedrinski named Trattoria Lucca for an ancient Tuscan city known for its exotic olive oils and savory Italian dishes.”