There are more Italian restaurants in Buffalo than any other ethnic flavor. Since pizza, chicken Parmesan and spaghetti with meatballs have joined the great American melting pot, maybe “ethnic” isn’t even the right word any more. Amid the sea of red sauce along Hertel Avenue’s Little Italy, Ristorante Lombardo stands tall. It doesn’t serve most of the Italian-American clichés. In an atmosphere of casual luxury, it serves the sort of Italian food that can make you fall in love with Italian all over again.
Ristorante Lombardo has been run by the Lombardo family since opening in 1975 as a red sauce joint. In the intervening years it’s expanded to include a sheltered front patio, switched gears to fine dining and changed its menu to reflect more Italian regional specialties.
Thomas Lombardo Jr. greeted us at the door while our friends left their car with the valet. During our two-hour meal, he rarely left his post, greeting customers, checking with tables after plates arrived and wishing departees farewell. I’ve never seen a restaurant host get so many hugs. Our main server appeared college-age but was mature, relaxed and skillful – precise without being formal, friendly but not fussy.
Under Chef Michael Obarka, the kitchen has increased use of locally sourced meat for entrees and house-made salumi, and seasonal ingredients featured in weekly specials. Obarka was on vacation the day we dined, leaving sous Greg Martin in charge, but I didn’t know and couldn’t tell.
Seasonal specials included corn soup ($8) and stuffed squash blossoms ($18), which we ordered. We asked for an antipasto ($18), wood-roasted figs ($14), grilled octopus ($14) and fried calamari ($12).
Our mains were black and white pasta with clams ($18), lobster ravioli ($18), a Berkshire pork chop ($36), and the 20-ounce grilled ribeye steak Fiorentina ($44). We also ordered sides of fried cauliflower and caramelized mushroom with rapini (both $7), and selected a Napa Valley red from the long and thoughtful wine list.
Though entrees can reach into the $40 range, the restaurant offers three-course meals for $33, Monday through Thursday. All pizzas are $9 for takeout.
Our table was next to the bar, but it didn’t get noisy enough to interfere with conversation. Lights were dim except for one directly over the table, which contributed to a sense of intimacy even after the room filled. Fresh, crusty Italian bread arrived with a saucer of grassy, spicy extra virgin olive oil.
The antipasto ably illustrated the Ristorante Lombardo difference. Instead of the typical overflowing platter of meat, cheese and pickles, there was enough of each type of meat and cheese for a foursome to sample. I was paying more for less food, but like fine wine, the flavors made the ride worth the ticket price. Included were three types of house-cured salumi (lonza, coppa, pork tenderloin smoked pastrami style), three types of cheese ranging from nutty to funky (piave and mountain gorgonzola from Italy, tarentaise from Vermont), a dish of warm marinated Castel Vetrano olives, and pickled Oles Farm green beans.
The squash blossoms wouldn’t fill anyone up, either. Three blossoms, three or four bites each. But what bites, these flowers transformed into delicately crispy bubbles of ricotta, peas and specks of speck (cured smoked pork), over fruity pomodoro tomato sauce.
Octopus was a more rustic dish, tender tentacles that had been grilled, offering contrast between meaty seafood and crispy charcoal edges. They were piled on smoky white beans punctuated with chopped pickled fennel, for crunchy acidity. “I could make a meal of those beans,” a guest said. Fried calamari evoked wonder too, tender rings tossed with peppery arugula salad and roasted grape tomatoes, then topped with shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Three ripe figs stuffed with gorgonzola, then wrapped in prosciutto, were crisped in the oven and served with an arugula salad dotted with more gorgonzola and balsamic vinegar. The combination of funk from the cured pork and cheese and fresh fruit sweetness made them a hit.
Corn soup was a minimalist version, topped with caramelized mushrooms and crispy bacon, not pureed smooth but with enough kernel left to put a crunch in each spoonful.
Cat’s black and white linguine, house-made like most of the pastas, melded squid-ink pasta with regular noodles that were black on one side and white on the other. It didn’t taste different, but added a sprinkle of fun to pasta that already was springy to the tooth and sparked with chiles, topped with tender clams, Pecorino Romano cheese and toasted breadcrumbs.
My steak was accurately cooked and crusted with fresh rosemary and herbs that had crisped in the fire. Fingerling potatoes seared in clarified butter and bitter greens made worthy companions. But the vegetable of the night was the cauliflower side dish, florets fried and tossed with chili-caper vinaigrette and Marcona almonds. It was cauliflower for people who don’t like cauliflower.
Lobster ravioli were pillows of sweet crustacean and mascarpone cheese in a buttery tomato sauce that reminded me of tomato soup gone to finishing school. Shredded basil leaves added aroma and a touch of green flavor.
The pork chop was faintly pink and juicy inside, but caramelized at the edges, a rare piece of pork loin that didn’t disappoint. The grilled peach and greens it came with provided a contrast to the richness from the pork and an oozy burrata.
Desserts included Frou Frou cake, tiramisu, mud pie and a special of peach cobbler (all $8). They were all good to excellent. The best were the elegant, airy cake, adorned with shaved white chocolate, and the peach cobbler, which covered tender, brightly flavored fruit with a topping that reminded me of a just-out-of-the-oven sugar cookie.
From beginning to end, this was my most memorable Italian meal in Buffalo, a meal without a significant misstep. Is Ristorante Lombardo the best Italian restaurant in town? Having not dined at all the contenders, I can’t say. Have I seen a better one? No.
This much is for sure: It’s one of the best restaurants in Western New York. Many places promise you a night to remember, and charge you accordingly. Ristorante Lombardo delivers.
Ristorante Lombardo - 10 plates out of 10
Amid sea of Hertel Avenue red sauce, elegant family-run place stands tall.
WHERE: 1198 Hertel Ave., 873-4291, http://ristorantelombardo.com
HOURS: 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 11 p.m. Friday; 5 to 11 p.m. Saturday; and closed Sunday.
PRICE RANGE: Sides, pizza and antipasti, $7-$18; pastas, $9-$24; entrees, $18-$44.
PARKING: Valet, street.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.