Toward Home

Luca’s Modern Italian Kitchen brings this couple back to their roots.

The activity inside the home of Luca and Jessica Annunziata defies the drizzly and unseasonably cold weather outside. Inside, we are gathered around the kitchen table drinking San Pellegrino with fat wedges of blood oranges. The conversation flits from stories of Luca’s youth in Italy to the endearing love story that brought Luca and Jessica together almost 17 years ago. It’s Monday, one of only two days that the Annunziatas aren’t at work inside their Elizabeth restaurant formerly known as Passion8 Bistro, now Luca’s Modern Italian Kitchen. The new name (and subsequent menu change), which took effect in March, comes after a joint decision between the couple—a choice that brought them closer to their roots, and back to meals like the one they were preparing tonight.

The mood in the kitchen is relaxed and dinner tonight is nothing fancy. Just simple Italian food, they tell me, the kind of food they like to eat. From the portable speaker on the windowsill, Napoli-born singer and guitarist Pino Daniele croons. Chef Luca hums along as he warms a pan of olive oil for the pile of chicken thighs destined to become his version of scarpariello, a one-pot dish of braised chicken with sausage, enoki mushrooms, and potatoes. To his right, Jessica stands over a cutting board in a pair of woolly socks. She chops a head of cauliflower and dices an onion for her contribution to the dinner table: pasta e cavolfiore. She reiterates the simplicity of the dish, a handful of ingredients: handmade rigatoni, cauliflower, and onion in a garlic-infused and chili-flecked olive oil. The couple move around each other with ease, a fluid kitchen ballet.

“Luca and I speak food,” says Jessica. Indeed, that is their love language. The two have worked together since the day they met, first in New York, then in Luca’s hometown of Torre Annunziata (yes, his hometown bears his surname) in the Campania region of Italy, and now Charlotte.

Campania forms the front part of the ankle on Italy’s boot-shaped geography. It is a culturally rich region known for its “Italian-ness” and breathtaking views. It’s where Luca was raised among a family of butchers and one influential matriarch.

Jessica is a second-generation Italian-American. Her grandparents hailed from the same region as Luca’s family. After the Sept. 11 tragedy, the pair returned to Luca’s hometown where Luca worked at a 2-star Michelin restaurant, and Jessica immersed herself in the culture and helped at the family butcher shop. “My only goal was to speak Italian and be in the restaurant business,” says Jessica. Of course, she had to contend with the quintessential Italian experience—Luca’s Italian mother, Filamena Fiore.

“I watched her everyday. From the minute she woke up, it started. She cooked twice a day, and never made the same thing twice,” says Jessica. “She took her role as matriarch so seriously. It was her chosen profession.”

Every meal was abundant, and Sundays warranted a feast. Everything came from someone—wine from the neighbor up the hill, cheese from another, and eggs from the lady next door. There were plates of grilled zucchini, eggplant, and pumpkin showered with garlic and mint alongside fresh seafood salad, juicy tomato slices, braciole, pasta, and a big pot of gravy. Food was at the heart of family.

Fast forward to 2005, when Luca and Jessica landed in Charlotte, determined to realize their dreams of restaurant ownership. Passion8 Bistro, or “the bistro” as they called it, opened in 2007 against all odds. “It wasn’t supposed to work,” says Jessica. For one, the Fort Mill location was less than desirable. There also were permitting challenges and electrical issues. With no budget, the couple decorated the restaurant with items plucked straight from their home. In the beginning, Jessica went door-to-door with free sandwiches and a menu to ask people for their business.

Eventually, their efforts paid off, and Passion8 Bistro developed a loyal following. Every night, Jessica and Luca would write the menu together, and their mission to showcase beautiful ingredients became a calling card. Passion8 Bistro ranked among one of the most innovative and respected restaurants in the Charlotte area.

In 2014, they took the leap from their beloved bistro and moved to the city into a restaurant triple the size. In Charlotte, the drive to keep up with the city’s rapidly changing food scene infiltrated their psyche and muddled the couple’s vision. Together, the Annunziata’s collectively reasoned that rustic wasn’t what people wanted. For a time, they stopped making the menu together.

“I wanted to do too much,” says Luca. “I had forgotten where we came from.”

Feeling depleted, the couple searched themselves. Where had they come from? What did they love about this business? What mattered the most?

What surfaced were visions of home. What mattered was family. And what they wanted to cook was what they wanted to eat.

Luca’s Modern Italian Kitchen is a reclamation of those things. At the restaurant, you’ll find a new menu written in both Italian and English. There’s a bright seafood salad like those from Sunday suppers in Campania, tossed with fresh lemon juice and olive oil, and cacio e pepe like his mother used to make.

Back at home, Luca hums along to his favorite Italian musician. “I started singing again,” he says with a smile. “I had stopped.” We spin the Lazy Susan to pass the bowl of pasta e cavolfiore around the table, and dip torn hunks of bread into the pan juices of the scarpariello. There is no pretense. We are home.

Photos by LunahZon Photography