Painted a charming teal and emblazoned with The Lucky Fig on either side, one of Houston’s newest food trucks is helmed by an up-and-coming chef who a year ago packed up his knives and his family and bid arrivederci to the Big Apple to try his luck in the less saturated Bayou City. After a decade working in New York kitchens and a 2012 win on Fox's "MasterChef," Manfé is introducing his Italian heritage to Houstonians.
Through his food truck and private dining service, Dinner with Luca—a concept that began in jest but 260 homes later is a thriving operation, the chef recreates classic dishes from his childhood in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, the most northeastern region of Italy. “It’s a region that back in the day was all field jobs,” says Manfé. “There was no industry. We have grain, we have grapes, of course, and corn fields. Lots of cows, so lots of cheese and salami and prosciutto.”
The most shocking transition to cooking in Houston? The lack of seasonality. “After 10 years in New York, where it’s similar to my hometown, here the year-round growing season is different,” says Manfé, who adapts his menu to maintain local flavors. “You just need to go to the market to see what is available.”
This Friday, he’ll be sharing his regional cuisine for 60 guests at The Italian Cultural and Community Center. Founded in 1982 as a federation of Italian clubs, it seeks to advance, celebrate and preserve Italian culture and heritage in Houston. While the nonprofit serves as a hub for 500 members, mostly of Italian descent, it attracts many more who merely seek to learn about Italian culture.
Manfé will showcase his region’s cuisine in ICCC’s chef dinner series, “A Tavola con lo Chef.”
“He’s a young chef, and I think it’s very nice to see him on the TV show that brought him fame and see him here in Houston and how he’s growing his business,” says Erika Myers, ICCC Programs and Event Coordinator. “I’m looking forward to seeing him in action.”
Unsurprising to anyone who’s sampled polenta fries from The Lucky Fig, Friday’s menu will begin with polenta fritters with homemade goat ricotta, figs and a balsamic reduction, followed by a creamy polenta flan, asparagus enrobed in a traditional Montasio cheese sauce and crispy speck di Sauris. “Polenta is very typical from Friuli,” says Manfé. “That’s why they call us polentoni.”
Braised short ribs, typically served with polenta or mashed potatoes, will receive a modern update, accompanied by a sunchoke puree and seasonal vegetables. For dessert: a classic vanilla panna cotta (“It’s just one of my favorite desserts ever”) with hazelnut cream and pistachio gelato.
To complete the cultural immersion, ICCC will show a brief video about Friuli-Venezia Giulia. “People who’ve never traveled to that region will learn more and hopefully be enticed to come visit,” says Myers. If nothing else, guests will likely seek out the Lucky Fig, or maybe consider inviting Manfé to cook in their own kitchens.
“To be in Houston when it’s growing and starting to get noticed is exciting,” says chef Manfé. “You can tell something is really going on.”
We’re glad he’s decided to be part of that something.