Cooking with Cathy Pavlos of Lucca Cafe: Sometimes, a Chef Does Simple

A dispatch from the print side—Senior Editor Chris Christensen gives us a report on a recent demo by chef Cathy Pavlos, owner of Irvine’s Lucca Café, complete with recipes for two easy, delicious pastas. More coming up soon in Taste of Orange County on the very busy chef… Lucca’s first-Sunday-of-the-month family-style themed suppers continue with this weekend’s “A Sunday Supper My Grandmother Might Have Made”—Pavlos’ grandmother, a big influence on her, was a great cook from Abruzzo—and she’s introduced a new, frequently-changing menu of small plates she calls bar snacks, but which you might well call dinner. And, importantly, Pavlos agreed to divulge another recipe, this for the bracingly zingy, can’t-eat-just-one house-made pickles accompanying the bar menu’s tri-tip slider.


Cathy Pavlos is a beating heart on two legs, a woman who puts love into everything she does. Which is why we adore her Italian suppers at Lucca Cafe in Irvine and never miss a chance to share her recipes, like today’s Scampi and Spicy Red Sauce, and her Traditional Basil Pesto and Grilled Chicken Breasts.

This Jersey girl chef, who’s proud of those roots, did a demo of both dishes at Orange Coast Magazine’s celebration of the physicians in our January Top Docs issue, and both were hits. As the crowd gathered to watch, the smells of garlic sautéeing and tomatoes bubbling in their juices set our appestats on high.

 “Save those expensive extra virgin olive oils for dipping and drizzling,” Cathy says, “and go for the Costco brand for cooking. Because of their purchasing power, they get first dibs on some of Italy’s best oils.” In her recipe, the sautéed shrimp and seasonings flavor the simmered tomatoes, eliminating the need to make a sauce first. While a can of whole tomatoes (she swears by the Trader Joe’s house brand) simmers in a saucepan, she sautées the garlic, pepper flakes, wine, and shrimp in a heavy skillet. When the tomatoes are done, she just zaps them briefly with a hand-held blender, then adds them to the scampi, ever so briefly, till the seafood is just cooked and the flavors meld.

She adds the mixture to a pound of al dente spaghetti—“you want long pasta for this dish,” she says—tosses it briefly, and serves. Deliziosissimo.—Chris Christensen

Scampi and Spicy Red Sauce from Chef Cathy Pavlos

(Makes 4 to 5 servings)

1 large can Trader Joe’s whole tomatoes

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 garlic cloves, minced

½ teaspoon red chili flakes, or more to taste

1 pound peeled and deveined shrimp

Splash dry white wine

¼ cup chopped Italian parsley

Sea salt, black pepper

1 pound linguine, cooked

In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, simmer tomatoes to reduce. After about 20 minutes, break up with immersion blender. In large skillet, sauté garlic and chili flakes in olive oil just until you smell the aroma—do not allow garlic to burn or it will taste bitter. Add shrimp and sear on both sides, but do not cook through. Add wine, and poach shrimp 2 to 3 minutes. Add tomato sauce, parsley, and salt and pepper to taste. Toss with cooked linguine.

Traditional Basil Pesto and Grilled Chicken Breasts from Chef Cathy Pavlos

(Makes 4 to 5 servings)

½ cup olive oil, Costco preferred

1 tablespoon pine nuts

3 garlic cloves, chopped

1-1/2 cups fresh basil leaves, tightly packed

½ cup grated Parmesan cheese

2 tablespoons salted butter

Sea salt, black pepper

1 pound fettuccine or penne

4 all-natural boneless chicken breast halves, butterflied

In blender, combine ¼ cup olive oil, pine nuts, and garlic; liquefy. Add basil leaves and remainder of olive oil and blend to a paste, adding a little more oil if necessary. Pour into mixing bowl and mash in Parmesan and butter. Taste for salt (it is not going to want a lot of additional salt). Season chicken with salt and pepper (or marinate in advance, if desired), and grill. Toss cooked pasta with sauce and top with chicken.

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