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Ristorante Lombardo

As
a full-blooded, first-generation Siciliana, when I go to an Italian restaurant,
food is only a part of what I look for. 
I want comfort, familiarity, easy eleganza
and food I might not
make myself, but that which brings back memories or makes entirely new ones.

And
then there’s that something else. 
My sister-in-law’s parents, Ann and Rudy Casarsa would have me to dinner
in their home occasionally when I first moved to Buffalo.  Ann always set a lovely table, and she
introduced me to Northern Italian cuisine that was beyond my own family’s
traditional fare.

One
Sunday at the table, while we all ate, Rudy put his fork down and smacked his
lips disapprovingly. 
“Ann,” he said, “something is missing here.  I’m not tasting the love.”

The
rest of us paused over our plates. 

“You’re right,” Ann sighed,
“I wasn’t in a very good mood today.”  So, it’s true; there is a special quality to food made with
love, and Rudy noted its absence.

Ristorante
Lombardo was a labor of love of sorts; an endeavor of owner Tommy Lombardo and
his late father, also Tom.  The elder Lombardo owned The Little Club on the 700 block of Main
Street, between Tupper and Goodell, moving to the Hertel location in 1975.  Tommy was a mere 21 back then, but what
he’s helped to make, sustain and grow in that time is one of the most
successful and superb restaurants, Italian or otherwise, in all of this city.

Tommy
greeted me and my dinner companion with his beaming smile, and led us to our
table.  Our waiter, Patrick Knab,
brought us a tried-and-true Justin Syrah that my companion favors, and we were
on our way.   Lombardo’s has a
large wine selection, with 20 varieties available by the glass.  Wine is also served in quartinos,
allowing the diner to pour, aerate and swirl at will.

lombardo-kitchen.jpg

Chef
Chris Salvati introduced himself. 
He has been with Ristorante Lombardo for eight years, since he was
19.  Eight years.
  Trained at the Pennsylvania Culinary
Institute, he mentored at Lombardo’s under Tom Argiro, who then busied himself
with other details, leaving Salvati in full reign of the kitchen–a task the
young man took up and ran with.  He
creates dishes with his own twist, based on regional/modern classics.  Apparently, Argiro knew a ringer when
he saw one.

lombardo-rav.jpg

The
first course was the Handmade Ossobuco Ravioli, with braised and shredded veal
shank and ricotta filling.  Salvati
extracts the marrow from the shank and blends it with along with the braising
liquid and chunky fresh tomato, for a sauce both rich and fresh.  Topped with a gremolata of parsley,
lemon zest and garlic, the pasta was at its al dente best and quite a treat.

lombardo_gnocci.jpg

The
next course had a home feel to it, Spicy Sausage with Porcini Mushrooms and
Gorgonzola Stuffed Gnocchi. The savory mushrooms, slight heat of the sausage
and subtle bite of the creamy gorgonzola was divine.  The ingredients were not so unusual, but the combination was
nothing less than exotic.  There was
a sweet flavor my guest and I struggled to identify; he guessed coriander at
one point, but Salvati told us it was fennel, Madeira and raisin–along with the
coriander. Clever.

lombardo_halibut.jpg

Next,
we had Pan Seared Halibut with a maple/mustard glaze.  It was served over a bed of Brussels sprouts, spinach and
wild mushrooms.  The halibut was
flaky inside, and the outer crust had just the right crunch and sweetness from
the glaze.  I’ve never met a
mushroom I didn’t love, and the earthy quality, combined with the tender greens
was truly out of this world–my favorite dish, and “pretty” as my
companion described it.

lombardo_beef.jpg

Our
last dish was Grilled Black Angus with Roasted Campari tomatoes, crusted with
breadcrumbs and cheese, and topped with a big dollop of arugula butter.  I haven’t personally been much of a
beef eater recently, but aside from the fact that I’ll eat just about
anything with butter on it, this 100 percent organic beef was the tastiest and
most tender I’ve had in years.

lombardo-ricotta cake.jpg

Patrick brought us slices of Frou-Frou Cake and Ricotta Cake for
dessert.  Sous Chef Michael Obarka
makes all of the desserts, and they are splendid.  The Frou-Frou is a classic that, according to Salvati
“has been here forever.” 
A white genoise cake, it was as light as its name and not too
sweet.  The Ricotta Cake is just
what it sounds like, and made with honey. 
Topped with cranberry orange compote, it gave me one more reason to love
all things Italian, but especially ricotta.

Salvati
is comfortable in this restaurant, the ambience of which he describes as old
school/relaxed.  It’s slick enough
for a nice date, but non-trendy enough to kick back in.  We appeal to both crowds,” Salvati
said.  “You can get spaghetti,
but you’ll get it with Kobe beef meatballs.  We make it as good as it can be, and then we make it
better.”

My
guess is that this young chef is as innovative as he is wise and
good-natured.  He has talent
without ego, drive without dire means. 
Salvati summed it up when he said, “We all like working together here.  We’re friends in the kitchen and
everybody likes what they do here. 
The turnover rate is zero.” 

We
joined General Manager John Spasiano at the bar where he surprised me with an
after dinner wine that rather thrilled me: Barolo Chinato Cocchi.  Originally a “medicinal” wine,
the grape is infused with quinine bark, rhubarb, gentian flower and spices,
including cardamom.  It’s bitter,
fruity and very good.

Salvati
said that staff comes and goes, but they almost always come back.  “It’s the circle of life
here,” he laughed.  Indeed,
Lombardo’s is a happy place to be–diner or employee; dining room, bar or
kitchen.  There’s a little bit of
love in everything they do, and Rudy would have to agree–you can taste it.

 

Apps
$8 to $12

Pastas
$16 – $23 / Half $9 to $23

Entrees
$19 to $35

Desserts
$6 -$6.50


Ristorante Lombardo

1198 Hertel Avenue

Buffalo, NY, 14216

716.873.4291


Top photo: Tommy Lombardo

Group: Chris Salvati, Mike Obarka and Andrew Giordano

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