Many Houstonians might not realize that there’s a MasterChef winner in their midst. Luca Manfè won Season Four of the competitive cooking show in 2013. Now he’s serving lovely, handmade Italian cuisine, even complex pasta dishes, right here in Houston from a food truck called The Lucky Fig.
In some ways, it was remarkable that Manfè won on MasterChef, since most of his restaurant experience was in the front of the house, not the kitchen. On the other hand, he was raised by a family of avid, skilled home cooks amid the natural culinary wealth of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of Italy. Cooking is in his blood.
Manfè moved to New York City in 2005. He was working as a restaurant manager at Per Lei, a casual Italian restaurant on the Upper East Side, when he applied for season three of MasterChef. He was turned down, started working at Michelin one-star restaurant A Voce and spent another year practicing his cookery. When he returned to apply for season four, the judges were impressed with how far he’d come. As the saying goes, the rest is history.
The big win on the show led to his cookbook, My Italian Kitchen: Favorite Family Recipes. It was published in 2014. It’s filled with wholesome, earthy, uncomplicated Italian recipes, many of which came from his mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. He keeps a few hard copies in The Lucky Fig truck for fans who come by and want to buy one for $25. Of course, it’s great to have the author on hand to sign it, too.
Manfè and his wife, Cate, came to Houston to visit family, but soon realized the city was ideal for other reasons. Manfè said, “We needed a place that was going to make it easier to raise a family. We have family here, and we came to visit four times in the past two years. We liked the city. Then we looked into real estate prices for residential and commercial and we liked Houston even more! It’s one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, if not the fastest — especially the restaurant scene. And there is always a place for some new vibrant Italian concepts, no?”
In addition to running The Lucky Fig truck, Manfè also runs a catering business called Dinner With Luca and does the occasional pop-up dinner.
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Often, the dishes rolling off The Lucky Fig look as if they’d be much more at home on fine china than in a disposable food box. Spinach pappardelle pasta the color of emeralds is dotted with creamy smoked ricotta and fennel purée and adorned with edible flowers. On top is a piping-hot helping of braised lamb shank meat.
Other times, classic Italian staples are self-consciously modified for the grab-and-go food truck world. Such is the case with a helping of polenta fries bolstered with a dose of good ol’ cheese sauce.
Much of the food reflects Manfè’s upbringing with wholesome ingredients. The Lucky Fig even serves a few different vegetable dishes. On the day of our visit, there was cauliflower that benefited from the inclusion of naturally sweet raisins, lots of deeply roasted pine nuts and shavings of real Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
It wasn’t much of a stretch to guess that Manfè is destined to someday run his own brick-and-mortar restaurant here in Houston, and he confirmed that he is indeed hopeful of having one open by the end of the year. It will be a delight to dine on his homespun Italian fare from a real plate with real silverware. In the meantime, it’s a lot of fun watching The Lucky Fig break even the highest expectations of what gourmet food truck fare truly can be.