Keeping it good and simple
Longtime restaurateurs excel at authentic Italian
1815 East Avenue
As Ristorante Lucano celebrated its nineteenth anniversary on November 13, the owners of this East Avenue stronghold took pride in a history of service and quality that have seen several generations of customers grace their space.
Largely because of the family origins of its founders, “we tend to be more southern Italian,” says JoAnn Formoso, sixty-two, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Chuck, sitxy-five; they started with a partner but have been sole owners for the past fifteen years. “It’s a little mix of everything, with five to eight fresh fish dishes every night.”
Their recipe for success is fresh ingredients and items imported from Italy. “We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” JoAnn says. “We’re just trying to keep it good and simple. We want our customers to come in and feel comfortable.”
A Google search reveals many enthusiastic online reviews of Ristorante Lucano, including “super romantic ambience, fantastic service & incredible food.”
You could say the Formosos have enjoyed a lifelong partnership and not just with the restaurant. That family origin is the same town in Sicily; they both came to Rochester with their families in 1966, when JoAnn was ten and Chuck was twelve. Their marriage came about a few years later: “It wasn’t formally arranged, but when I wanted to go to my senior ball, my father wouldn’t let me go unless it was someone he knew, so I went with Chuck, and things went from there,” JoAnn says. “We’ll be married forty-two years in June (2020).”
The Formosos launched Ristorante Lucano in 2000. Neither had any restaurant experience, although Chuck did have a substantial background in all other aspects of the food business. “He started with Olindo Foods and did everything: purchasing, distribution, management,” and also worked for Palmer Foods. He retired in 2018 to concentrate on the restaurant. JoAnn’s background was in project management, with several years of intensive work in customer service, facilities, management, and more for Kodak through Accel and RGE through Doyle. “Compared to that, the restaurant was easy! And every day is different.”
The restaurant’s major challenge is an aging customer base—“younger people might not find us because we don’t do a lot of advertising,” but that can be an advantage when “every person thinks they’re a foodie” these days and can be annoyingly picky. The Formosos do have loyal, long-time customers who bring their children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren, to the restaurant. “We’ve always had quality customers,” JoAnn says. “A lot of our regular customers have become like family.”
The family feeling extends to the staff: The manager has been with the restaurant for fifteen years, the chef for more than fourteen, and the sous-chef for fourteen.
Lucano is cozy — it could accommodate sixty-five to seventy-five diners comfortably, but tables are spaced out “to give people a pleasant dining experience without a lot of noise or crowding,” JoAnn says. “We’d rather have fewer people and have them enjoy their meals.”
The restaurant has expanded a bit. As of five years ago, it includes the former Subway space, leading to adding the bar and enlarging the kitchen so the chef could finally have all the space he needed. They had a small shop a couple of doors down from the restaurant that sold sauces, imported ingredients, and gift baskets, but closed it so JoAnn could be “a good Italian Nonna” to their daughter’s children, whom she babysat for their first eighteen months each. They will still make gift baskets and sell other items from the restaurant on request, and the former shop serves as handy storage space.
Chuck has been more involved in day-to-day operations in the past year as JoAnn battled breast cancer and a double mastectomy, with more surgery scheduled for early in the new year. “He’s never going to be ready to retire,” JoAnn says. “His dad lived to almost 100, so we figure he has a lot of years left for the restaurant.”
For the Formosos and Ristorante Lucano, it all comes down to wanting to “make our customers be comfortable,” JoAnn says. “We offer an old-fashioned type of service. We want to thank our patrons who have been coming to us from day one and now let us see their kids and grandkids.”
Lucano only serves dinners and is open from Tuesday through Saturday.
Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (writerruth.com) hosts the annual Be a Better Freelancer conference and received a 2015 Big Pencil Award from Writers & Books for inspiring and contributing to “advancement, creation, and understanding of literature in the Rochester community."