Sunday, December 6, 2009


It was another who finally drove me into the dining room of Lombardino's. Another who left me... unsatisfied. One who promised me greatness but provided only mediocrity, her only consolation was that, while she would not satisfy me, at least there was a lot of her. Cold comfort.

Actually, it's more along the lines of melancholy. I actually don't like writing negative reviews. It's a little too easy to find a fault and magnify it with clever language. One dirty fork should not doom a restaurant. We can all giggle evilly while we circle a perceived flaw like sharks sniffing blood, tearing down someone's hard work and dreams for the sake of... what really? Entertainment? I wonder how many otherwise good restaurants have gone under due to the deadly combination of a less than perfect execution and a snarky reviewer gunning for readers or ratings? It was my review of Benvenuto's that drove me to Lombardino's.

I left Benvenuto's wanting to go somewhere I'd like. Somewhere I'd been looking forward to for a while. I was just starting to make plans when the opportunity suddenly blossomed like a botanical ninja. Due to a small scheduling snafu, my Bride and I found ourselves off work on a Tuesday evening, with money in our pocket and nothing much to do. Our thoughts moved quickly, consensus was reached and we darted off to Lombardino's.

I am incapable of reviewing an Italian restaurant without invoking thoughts of the movie Big Night. For those who have never seen, it is about two Italian brothers, Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secundo (Stanley Tucci) who are trying to run an authentic Italian restaurant while across town, their competition, Pascal (Ian Holm) runs a far more mediocre but predictable and popular restaurant. I promise that if you watch it, I'll stop talking about it... okay? Throw it in your Netflix queue. Once you have seen it, you will understand when I say this: Lombardino's is what would happened if Pascal's restaurant was taken over by Primo and Secundo.

Like a table-side flambé, there is not a little kitschy showmanship in Lombardino's décor. Front and center to this is the miniature model of the Trevi Fountain that greets you from its Plexiglassed, squatting spot by the entrance (I've yet to see it turned on but I notice once again that if there is any running water that isn't a toilet or a sink, people will toss coins in it). The murals of mock Italian scenes are not that different than those at Benvenuto's (as my Bride pointed out). If you asked my impression of the place after a quick whip-through of the dining room, if you told me nothing of the place's reputation or didn't let me see a menu, I might not be too enthusiastic.

But I do know the reputation. I started hearing it within my first week of arriving in Madison.

It's sometimes hard to trust people's opinions of restaurants (note: Including this person). People come to their opinions in their own way and in their own time, which is probably not your way or in your time. As an example, I have a friend who we shall call Poker. Over a few cocktails and delicious tobacco products one evening, we fell to discussing our favorite Madisonian restaurants. Poker esteems different things than I do. His personal taste runs to the “Big Portions/Good Value” school. He stands unimpressed with Lombardino's for exactly that reason. Lombardino's proudly chooses quality over quantity in it's ingredients and preparation. This is a choice which draws much affection from their regulars but for some, the value of the taste does not surpass the price of the food. If Poker was the only person I had listened to about Lombardino's, I would have grossly missed out. He is not the only person from whom I've heard an unkind word about Lombardino's either, but what struck me from moment one was how few bad words one heard about them. Disproportionately few.

Of those that spoke highly, there were no urgent cries of enthusiasm, no squeals about “how much you are going to LUHV that place!” Most endorsements I heard, and they were numerous, were made in even, factual tones. “Oh yeah, they are great.” No extraneous exclamation points, no caps, no italics. Fact + Period. As if to say, “We hold this truth to be self-evident. You will find out for yourself soon enough and if you don't, no amount of fancy language was going to convince you anyway.”

That is the kind of humble confidence that gives me a good, rock solid feeling in my gut. I knew Lombardino's was going to be great before I walked in the door and it made me feel doubly good to be right. I just had a great meal AND I have good judgment! Huzzah!

After a short perusal of the menu my Bride and I decided to split the Calamari Fritti. Now, calamari is nothing special. It's available as an appetizer in just about every Italian restaurant in the city and I've had it done a thousand times, it's one of my favorites. I've never had it done so well. The meat was cooked to a tender and delicate texture with nary a bite undercooked and squishy or overcooked and rubbery. The light, super crispy batter was the perfect textural compliment.

The waiter explained that the dish was one of their specialties (which didn't impress me that much) and that they cook it based on the sound it makes when frying (which impressed the hell out of me). Seems our friendly yet non-cloying waiter had actually spent some time working in the back of the house as a master of the fry-o-lated arts and had first hand experience.

So knowledgeable and agreeable was our waiter, we bowed to his suggestion on our wine. No, I don't remember what it was. Yes, it was excellent. Yes, that annoys me. I know I've had a lot of great wine out there, but damn if I can remember any of them. Luckily, I have recently found a solution to such issues.

One of the perils of offering up a review of any subject is that despite any literary skill or keen insight, you are still a limited sample size. A single instant data set does not an accurate reflection make. I often have such things on my mind when eating anywhere I'm going to scribble about later. I usually try to mitigate it slightly by making my selections as representative as possible. I look at a menu and try to find a signature dish, something that speaks to the core of what a restaurant is or wants to be.

After a few minutes of staring at Lombardino's menu, I chose the Linguine alla Bolognese. Bolognese is, by itself a very simple dish. It is theoretically “just a meat sauce”. But doing the simple things right can often be the hardest thing for a restaurant to do. Many an egotistical head chef with delusions of grandeur cannot be restrained from “putting his signature touch” on a dish that really should not be fucked with. My thought was that if they can do this very simple dish and do it well, mission accomplished.

It was, superb. Meat, fat, acidic notes of tomatoes and wine, creamy cheese and comforting pasta all blended seamlessly in each mouthful.

It's hard to speak on flavor. We've used up all the appropriate words describing socks and hot dogs. I can fill your ears with flowery language but they would still fall short of reality. I can't say for sure that you or anyone is guaranteed to like it. All I can say with confidence is this: This is the best Italian food I have ever had and ranks high on my best all time ever list. As far as I am concerned, Lombardino's is one of the best things about Madison.

I feel compelled to offer up another observation here, take it with as much salt as you wish.

It feels to me that a great crime would be committed in rushing a meal at Lombardino's. If the Italian culture brings any little bit of wisdom to the world it is joy and appreciation of time. Time spent in preparation, time spent at the table. Do not do yourself an injustice by stopping off for an entrée and then trying to hit a movie. That would be a crime. Lombardino's is your evenings activity, not an element within.

First off, do not go alone. Don't go as a couple. Get friends. At least four but eight would be better. Go early and leave your budget at home. This is not a place to pinch pennies. Not because they are expensive but because your menu selections should be governed solely by your own desires and not by your resources. Call it a gift to yourself. Call it a reward. You work hard, right? Life conspired to make the road rocky frequently enough that I can say, with no hesitation, that you deserve this. This is not an indulgence, this is not cheating or sinning. This is earned... this is owed.

There, now you are hopefully in the right mindset to enjoy yourself.

Apéritif? Yes! In a civilized world we always start a fine meal with a fine beverage. Stimulates the appetite and clears the palate. I recommend a Dry Martini, up, stirred, not shaken, one olive (don't want to fill up, now do we?).

Wine with dinner? Of course! What would dinner be without wine? Order a bottle. If it runs out, order another one, and another after that. You should wind up with a half a bottle left at the end of the meal so you can linger and finish it.

Antipasta? Yes. Split it if you need to leave room but if you want one for yourself... go for it. You want to order a bunch of them and pass them around the table? Excellent idea! You're a genius!

Entrée? If you even look at the price, so help me gawd I will fucking smack you. Get it because you want it.

Dessert? Need you ask?

Digestif? Have you ever had a dessert wine while you are eating your dessert? There is nothing so wonderful at the end of a meal as port and cigars. Unfortunately, in our rather philistine, barbaric times, you are not allowed to smoke cigars indoors like a civilized individual, but at least you can still have the port.

The point is that each coarse, each element is enjoyed together. The more elements, the more evening we have to enjoy. This is no dine and dash. Tell long stories, tell jokes... stupid jokes. Balance spoons on your nose. Make a toast. Make multiple toasts. Drink too much wine and kiss somebody. Have fun! Laugh too loud, stay too long, eat too much. The whole point is to linger because you want to linger. Because you are having fun and don't want the night to end.

That is how Lombardino's should be experienced.

La Dolce Vita.