Lucy (Lucia) Luhan never imagined that the 500-year-old abandoned farmhouse she saw while visiting Tuscany in 1985 would become her home, a cooking school, a wedding location for Americans, and a bread and breakfast for the next 30 years.
Lucy Vallera, a first-generation Italian, born in Connecticut, was raised in a European household, where traditional values and customs prevailed, including making fresh pasta daily. After completing Bachelor of Arts and of Science degrees at the University of Minnesota, and studying for her masters in Public Relations at Boston University, she married Dr. Jorge Luhan in 1965 and, shortly after, moved to California.
In 1976. seeing the void in quality foods, Lucy opened What’s Cooking Bistro, a quality foods-to-go establishment in Newport Beach, believed to be the first in the US, with some 12 different types of homemade pasta and 52 sauces before the popularity of pasta in the 1980’s. To convince the public that pasta need not be a caloric dish, she offered the caloric and nutritional value of each menu item, which was publicized in local papers when she made a comparison of their menu items with fast popular food items.
Ten years later, Lucy was a successful restaurateur. As president of Luhan Corporation, she operated three restaurants–What’s Cooking Bistro, What’s Cooking Express Cuisine and Luciana’s Ristorante in Dana Point. All three locations offered catering services and food-to-go.
With the restaurants running smoothly, Lucy began renovating the 15th century farmhouse.
“Seeing my absence from my restaurants brought curious friends from Orange County to see what I was doing, which lead to what was supposed to be our family home in Europe becoming the B&B of Tuscany at Villa Lucia,” Lucy says.
Asked to teach a weekly cooking class lead to her offering cooking classes during the year and olive oil seminars in the fall.
Before long, Villa Lucia became a popular wedding location for the Luhan’s Orange County friends. The Luhan daughter, Michelle, married Peter Nordberg in 1999, with 150 Orange Countians in attendance among the 250 guests. The wedding service was held in the small, quaint medieval church in Montevettolini, followed by the wedding party walking to Villa Lucia lead by the renowned Montevettolini marching band.
“We soon became OC’s most popular Tuscan villa, hosting 2,000 to 3,000 Orange Countians over the years,” Lucy says.
With so much to see in the area, Lucy’s B&B guests needed more time to enjoy the art of living Italian style and started requesting the villa for weekly and monthly rentals through the year. However, time has always been set aside in the fall during the olive harvest for cooking classes and the olive oil seminars, along with, when weather permits, truffle hunts with the truffle hounds.
Visits to local artisans in the area is always appealing along with a big attraction, especially for the ladies–shopping at popular designer stores, such as Fendi, Versace and Gucci, down the hill from the villa in Montecatini, along with the town’s renowned spas.
After years restructuring the abandoned farm to provide the necessary amenities and meet the needs of her mainly OC friends, Lucy made it a permanent move in 1994, while her husband, Dr. Jorge E. Luhan, a respected plastic and reconstructive surgeon in Newport Beach, remained behind, joining Lucy in Italy in 2001.
When closing What’s Cooking in 2003, the Luhan family was honored with a proclamation from the City of Newport Beach, thanking them for their many years of serving the public and for “setting the standards for OC’s evolving culinary landscape through their family-run-and-operated neighborhood bistro, the first in OC.” Luciana’s, the remaining family restaurant, managed by their son Jorge, is enjoying its 35th year in business. Catering to such celebrities such as Placido Domingo, Cher, Madonna, Frankie Avalon and David Letterman, the restaurant has a steady stream of Luciana customers making their way to Villa Lucia. The restaurant also sells Lucy’s Madonna dell’ olive extra-virgin olive oil, produced from olives from the farm’s certified organic olive grove, which has been featured on the Today Show. (orders taken at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Lucy’s experience has lead her to self-publish a book called “Convivio,” due out this year.
“It compares my experience cooking, teaching and enjoying life in the two countries that I love. I feel fortunate and proud to have been born in the greatest, most industrial, country in the world–America. But, when comparing food cultures, I feel fortunate to have Italian immigrants as parents, who gave me the importance of genuine foods and the daily ritual of time at the family table.”
The book, she said, is dedicated to her 102-year-old mother, her loving role model, who taught her the importance of the Mediterranean “diaitan,” referring to a “way of life,” which is just as important to one’s well being as fresh foods and olive oil.
Lucy feels her inherited Italian DNA, seeking fun for herself and others, is at the center of her heart and soul, bringing her back for 35 years to life at the table. She feels fortunate to have such a treasure chest of wonderful memories at what her guests refer to as her “magical table.”
After 30 years, the Luhans have decided to sell Villa Lucia, either as a family estate, a successful business, or, as many OC guests have suggested, to make it available for fractional ownership. The 15-acre farm is certified organic and licensed as an agriturismo, allowing farm guests to lodge and eat on the premises. It also produces a certified organic extra-virgin olive oil. The main house has seven bedrooms and a groundkeeper’s apartment. Two detached buildings can provide lodging with an additional five rooms, staff quarters, as well as a large family room and office.
Jorge has suggested they return to Lucy’s roots in Abruzzo, the least known of all the regions of Italy, where, as a child, her passion for genuine foods and convivio commenced. Life at the table will continue with relatives and friends, but the business, Lucy feels, will be left to great memories she can relive in her last years.
To rent or inquire about the sale of Villa Lucia, contact LucyLuhan65@gmail.com or visit LuciaTuscanVilla.com