The Food Issue: Luce and Luce Secondo

Chef Tony Caruana and the Team at Luce and Luce Secondo
Chef Antonio “Tony” Caruana Luce

Where a Hearty Ragu is a “Homefelt Remembrance”

Antonio “Tony” Caruana is an avowed traditionalist. The son of a chef, he believes in the near-extinct kitchen brigade system and apprenticeships, understanding a recipe’s origin and reasons. This doesn’t chain him to the old ways, just that he knows and respects the rules.

Then, and only then, does he not exactly break them, but shapes and sculpts them, like an artist, putting his stamp on transformed classics.

“Well, maybe I’m not an artist,” he says with trademark forthrightness. “Let’s say artisan.”

OK, but some call his wild boar ragù a masterpiece.

It’s just one of the many multiregional Italian dishes, imbued with idiosyncratic flair, that have landed this hard-driving, Harley-riding chef-owner of 11-year-old Luce (Granby Street, Downtown Norfolk) and two-year old Luce Secondo (Summit Pointe, Chesapeake) in the foodie spotlight.

For that hearty yet refined ragù capping pappardelle, he first considers what he learned in Tuscany (his roots trace back to Civitavecchia, but the whole of Italy—and beyond—constitutes his source material). Then he slow-cooks and pulls a wild boar shoulder, as they do in these parts with pork for BBQ. It’s relatable to his guests or, as he describes it, “a homefelt remembrance.”

Photo Courtesy of Luce Restaurant

His hometown is New Haven (the Navy brought him here in 1994 as a jet mechanic and later he worked at La Bella Italia; he still calls Anna Alaimo a mentor). Hence Clams in Brodo, a rich broth of peppered bacon, shallot and tomato, evoking Italy’s coast as well as New England. 

In Pinsa Margherita, he fuses the crisp, Roman-style pizza with a Neapolitan topping of San Marzano tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella and fresh basil. And he merged the street-food octopus he’s devoured in Sicily and Padua with a plating that captured his imagination in Spain for smoky, tender Polpo Carbonizzato, charred octopus served with cannellini beans, blistered tomatoes and pancetta.

He’s all for local and sustainable products but, above all, wants the best. “If the best that’s closest is in New Jersey, that’s what I’ll use,” he says emphatically.

While both restaurants offer pasta, fish and meat specialties, he expanded his menu at Secondo where staff numbers 55 (compared to Norfolk’s 15), and six of the scrappy originals could fit into Secondo’s Lucullan dining room.

Chef Tony Caruana at Luce Secondo (Photo by Dave Uhrin)

It’s as if he catapulted from a beloved provincial opera house to La Scala.

“Growth to me isn’t about bigger profit or more money,” he says. “It’s being able to see more happy faces.”

He insists on coming out of his zone, touching tables, to make sure guests’ expectations are met. Beefy as a bodyguard, and fierce in his convictions (“I’d rather be hated for who I am, than loved for who I am not”), it brings out his softer side.

“You need to have empathy in this business,” he says. And his tone mellows when he speaks about his four children. Among his head-to-toe tattoos (reupholstered a couple times over), their names are inked on his neck, so always visible.

He admits that opening Secondo was scary, despite confidence in Summit Pointe’s vision. “I knew the area was ready for upscale; it was just a matter of who and when,” he reflects. “But was I the who? Was now the when?” Judging by the booming business: Yes to the first question. And yes to the secondo.

Learn more at lucenorfolk.com, lucesecondo.com.
See us in the pages of the March-April Food Feature.

Marisa Marsey Headshot
Marisa Marsey
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Marisa Marsey is a food, beverage and travel writer whose awards include 1st place Food Writing from the Virginia Press Association. A Johnson & Wales University representative, she has sipped Château d'Yquem '75 with Jean-Louis Palladin, sherpa-ed for Edna Lewis and savored interviews with Wolfgang Puck and Patrick O’Connell.

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