Authentic, upscale Italian food on the rise in Wichita

By Joe Stumpe

Serial restaurateur Melad Stephan opened Luca to fill what he saw as a missing niche of upscale Italian restaurants in Wichita's dining scene.

Now, you can hardly swing a calamari tentacle without hitting one. In the past year, Luca has been joined by Bocconcini, Ciao Italian Kitchen and Italian Bistro. Meanwhile, Bella Vita Bistro, which is only slightly older, just announced plans to expand.

What's going on? Gianluca Sciagata, the Italian-born chef at Luca, shrugs his shoulders.

Maybe people decide they want more of it, Sciagata said.

Sciagata grew up in the Piedmont region of northern Italy, an area known for its rich dairy-based dishes. He'd spent a dozen a years in this country before Stephan lured him from a job in Aspen.

Luca occupies Stephan's former Uptown Bistro space in Old Town Square. While that restaurant mixed in a few pasta dishes, Luca is as pure an Italian eatery as possible. With his menu, Sciagata said, We go from north to south (Italy), but mostly north and central. What we try is more traditional.

That includes veal ossobuco, lamb chops, gnocchi and beef carpaccio in addition to salads, pizzas and pastas. As this article was being prepared, Sciagata was getting ready to introduce some heartier dishes for his fall menu, including mushroom risotto and butternut squash ravioli. Luca makes its own fresh egg-and-flour pasta to encase the latter.

Except for a dozen American wines, the extensive wine list more than 75 are listed  all come from Italy.

So far, Sciagata said, customers seem to be warming to his menu, even if it doesn't include spaghetti and meatballs.

Most of the plates are clean, he said. And anyway, he added, it would be too much confusion if I try to make something else. Bocconcini shows you don't have to be from Italy to loves its food, and cook it well.

Owner Nathan Toubia is the son of Antoine Toubia, who was one of Wichita's best-known restaurateurs (Piccadilly, Olive Tree) before his death.

The Toubias are Lebanese, but Nathan spent nine years in Kansas City working for Lydia's, the restaurant owned by TV food personality Lydia Bastianich.

I just really enjoyed her food just the fresh ingredients and simple preparation, Toubia said of his long apprenticeship. It was kind of like my dad did with Lebanese food.

The job had its perks. One day Toubia served as sous chef to guest chef Mario Batalia, then flew with him on a private jet to Pittsburg to do the same at another of Lydia's restaurants.

When Nathan returned to Wichita, he decided it made more sense to put that experience to use than to add to the city's roster of Lebanese restaurants.

The last thing I wanted to do is my hummus is better than your hummus, he said.

Bocconcini offers an inventive selection of appetizers including prosciutto-and-fig pizza, and swine-wrapped shrimp along with soups, salads, entrees, homemade pastas and desserts.

Nathan also persuaded his brother, Andrew, 26, who'd also been working in the food business in Kansas City, to return home.

I had faith in his Italian cooking, Nathan said. He definitely brings a real passion to it.

Restaurants mentioned in this article include:

301 N. Mean

4811 E. Central

1720 N. Webb Road

155 N. Market

120 N. West Street

live  |  shop  |  dine  |  play  |  home  |  magazine  |  calendar  |  about  |  your turn