The Italian fine-dining establishment Ristorante Lombardo is resplendent with touches of class: Valet parking for your ride; white tablecloths glistening under dim lighting; crisp, white-collared wait staff ready to de-crumb the table and refold your cloth napkin; and of course, some of the best Italian fare this side of Piazza Navona. (You can read Andrew Galarneau's 10 out of 10 plates review of the restaurant here.)
Lombardo boasts a "3 for $33" weekday dinner special, as well as $9 take-out pizzas, both nods toward those of us who crave champagne on a beer budget. This week, we discovered their in-house service is equally welcoming.
Like many restaurants, Lombardo's bar is almost an afterthought. The small horseshoe of dark wood encircles rows of bottles sparkling against a mirrored back wall beckoning customers closer. There's enough room for patrons to cozy up and spend the evening against the marbled counter, and enough jovial charm from its bar staff to welcome just that.
From the host to the busboys, the folks at Lombardo are attentive without being overbearing and laughter between bartenders and patrons challenged the sound-deadening upholstered walls throughout the evening. The menu seems curated to match the food and the seasons, with plenty of dark, bitter and spiced flavors.
I tried the "Suppressor #21," a cynar, fortified wine, sherry and orange bitters blend that tasted like dark, rich chocolate, the kind that's barely chocolate at all, as we Americans know it. Cynar, an Italian liqueur made with artichoke, tastes earthy, but the orange bitters added citric sunshine that broadened the flavor profile considerably. Cooked fruit sweetness from that sherry and wine is a solid base, and a little orange zested over top balanced it all out with a clean ending note.
The Suppressor is a class of cocktails developed in Atlanta, Ga., coined by mixologist Greg Best for that car-centric town. Characteristically low in alcohol, suppressors are intended to be complex-tasting drinks, without knocking the sipper out of his seat. The #21 was invented by Paul Calvert of Pura Vida tapas bar as a drink long on flavor, short on booze and high in class. At the Hertel Avenue Lombardo, not many patrons live within walking distance, making that cocktail a smart choice for both practicality and taste.
Without any strong spirits, the Suppressor #21 would be a mellow, soothing end to a large meal, and the bartender said he often recommends it for visitors looking for a nightcap. But that deep, velvety flavor would pair well with any of the pizzas on the menu or a trio of appetizers, either of which could make the bar at Lombardo a classy, affordable evening out that you'll still remember the next morning.
At the bar with us on a weekend night were the usual suspects for an establishment of Lombardo's caliber: A middle-aged couple in a suit and evening dress, sipping red wine poured out of a decanter; a couple of men in blazers with opened collars, laughing jovially over whiskeys about work business. But there was also a pair of young people in jeans and collared shirts, watching the Sabres lose on the television over the bar.
If there was ever an invisible line between the haves and have-nots in this town, there's now a hand with a drink in it stretching across. At places like Lombardo, even those who can't afford or don't want a three-course meal can sit at the bar and nosh on a pizza or two, sipping a drink that as happily pairs with the plate as precedes it.
Ristorante Lombardo exudes pomp and circumstance, but in true Buffalo fashion, there's a smile waiting behind the bar, no matter who you are. With a spate of cocktails that ranges from classic spirits-forward to the more mellow Suppressor #21, you can start, end or conduct your entire evening at the bar, even if you did drive in from the 'burbs.
Suppressor #21, $10; Ristorante Lombardo, 1198 Hertel Ave, Buffalo; 873-4291; www.ristorantelombardo.com.
Lizz Schumer is a Buffalo writer and editor who covers cocktails, food and whimsy for a variety of publications. She is the author of "Buffalo Steel" and can be found @eschumer orwww.facebook.com/authorlizzschumer.