In the Buffalo area, no restaurant sector is more competitive than Italian-American cuisine. Thank the shiploads of Italian immigrants who passed through Ellis Island to take up work in the factories, fields and streets of their new home. And the restaurants, always the restaurants, weaving spaghetti and tomato sauce into their neighbors’ lives until chicken parm was as American as apple pie. ¶ Lombardi’s Trattoria opened last year in a Lockport building within a mile of two Italian restaurants that have served Lockportians well for decades. A recent visit suggested it needs to fine-tune its offerings if it wants to keep up with the neighbors. ¶ Pull open the door and you’re greeted with a moving tribute to Lockport’s past. A mural presents a tree with hundreds of leaves, each bearing the name of an Italian family that put down roots in Lockport.
If we had moved to the right, we would have entered the bar, but we waited, unsure, until a server noticed us and brought us to the dining room. It, too, was an homage to history, with a detailed mural of a plaza lined with Italian businesses, and people dear to owners John Lombardi and David Herl.
The tables were set with maroon over white tablecloths and cloth napkins curled into roses. I was surprised by how extensive the menu was, counting 35 entrees among pastas, seafood, steaks, veal and chicken, not counting pizzas, salads and appetizers. Steaks included an 8-ounce sirloin ($17), 8-ounce filet ($26) and 16-ounce N.Y. strip ($25), with enhancers like Oscar style ($6) with jumbo lump crab, béarnaise sauce and asparagus.
Hot, crusty rolls arrived with butter, holding us over until dishes arrived. A bowl of beans and greens ($5) had broth and white cannelini beans with crunchy, fresh greenery that made it as much salad as soup. It was filling, but the broth didn’t have much flavor.
A jumbo meatball topped with a fried egg and tomato sauce ($8) was an enjoyable savory combination, even with a solid yolk. Peppers stuffed with cheese and sausage were a spicy, beguiling combination, although I prefer my peppers cooked until velvety tender. They came with garlic toast made from good Italian bread.
Calamari ($9) was a helping of previously frozen breaded squid rings, sadly, and fried pepper rings, which I liked better. Chef Herl said calamari is usually made fresh, and this was the backup calamari plan. I told him there are worse things than running out of fresh calamari, especially if you have the bad luck to host a reviewer.
Entrées come with salad, sporting house-made croutons, which is a plus if they’re uniformly crunchy, but some were chewy. There also was a Caesar option, which was a bottled Caesar dressing. I enjoy bottled Caesar at home or in pizzeria settings, but in a place dealing with lump crab and béarnaise, it’s disappointing. Next time I’d go for the sweet basil vinaigrette plus crumbly blue cheese (50 cents).
Pizza was a highlight of our meal, as we tucked into a white pizza ($14) topped with sliced fresh tomatoes, red onion, garlic, mozzarella and Parmesan. The crust was breadlike in a good way, offering heartiness and crunch.
My N.Y strip steak ($25) arrived properly cooked to medium-rare and sauced with Chianti glaze, which gave the undistinguished beef more flavor. Onion straws on top were freshly cooked and crispy, the green beans pleasantly garlicky. An order of shrimp Provencal ($17) topped linguine with fresh tomatoes and five medium-sized shrimp, but its meek flavor could have used more garlic.
A Pollo Tre ($16) sampled three chicken dishes in one, with chicken-tender-sized portions of chicken Florentine, Parmesan and pecan maple chicken, the first two served over spaghetti with tomato sauce. The fresh spinach on the Florentine version, browned cheese of the Parmesan and nutty sweetness made it my favorite entrée.
Dessert was my favorite course. Lombardi’s offered four housemade desserts: a chocolate espresso cake, tiramisu, strawberry cheesecake (all $6) and cannoli ($3.95).
Fudgy icing on chocolate cake, amplified with the bitterness of coffee, was a winner. The tiramisu, light and delicate creaminess over ladyfingers touched with more espresso and liqueur, ended the meal on a positive note.
Lombardi’s offered competent Italian food, for the most part, but I left with the impression it was trying to do too much. The pizza and tiramisu were dishes I’d go back for. If it can offer dishes with the attention to detail that went into its murals, its future should be bright.
Lombardi’s Trattoria: Menu needs a little fine-tuning to keep up with neighbors