On the first truly pleasant spring day of 2019, I was at the Little Club on Hertel Avenue, trying to become a better restaurant critic. One recurring reader complaint is that I don’t offer much wine insight. It’s a fair cop, as the Brits say.
Which was why I was across the street from Ristorante Lombardo, in the family’s new wine-bar-slash-graduate-seminar. General Manager Dan Reisch was taking the time to pour sips and drop wine knowledge nuggets on my head until I was reeling with the weight of what I didn’t know.
The club’s stable of dark-horse wines changes by the month, and June’s seminar-by-the-glass starts with Riesling. Posh tinned seafood ($12-$14), charcuterie, cheese and housemade bites like chicken liver mousse ($10) are on offer.
I was saving room for dinner across the street, where I had enjoyed an evening in 2014 that merited my top rating, 10 plates.
I had been in for dinner once since review night. In 2017, I found its $39-for-three-courses weekday prix fixe one of the best fine values in Buffalo. This time, I left a little disappointed.
I’ve started returning to restaurants that I’ve reviewed before, in addition to the usual mix of new places and first-timers. I would welcome your suggestions for places that ought to get a second look, for undeserved laurels or underappreciated splendors. I have my opinions, but I’m also an agent for readers, your dining concierge.
Other readers complained that I don’t go to fancy restaurants any more. At Ristorante Lombardo, the reservation was in a friend’s name, as usual, but owners Thomas Jr., his son Thomas and executive chef Michael Obarka know my mug. The wine list is deep in Italian vintages. I confidently ordered a glass of Montepulciano ($10), because I had enjoyed it before, and could pronounce it.
The full dining room, done in tones of old copper and leather, bustled with servers in uniform shirt-and-tie, pouring ice water and delivering bread baskets. Ours held baguette and munchable cheesy lavash crackers.
A ramp and ricotta torta ($12) led the specials, but as soon as the server said soft-shells, my spring fling was set. I adore soft-shell crabs unreservedly – they’re crab for lazy people, with that slight carapace crunch, a juicy crab taco in its own Ortega shell. Here, a pair ($24) had been sautéed expertly to bring out their marine sweetness, contributing sea essence to the butter-and-white-wine base of asparagus-studded risotto.
A fig pizza ($15) with prosciutto, Gorgonzola and red onion jam was stouter than I remembered, with a brawnier cornicione. But the fruit-jammy sweetness against the salty aged savor of shaved Italian ham and Gorgonzola kept the classic on track.
[Related: Read about The Little Club, another Lombardo venture]
Tableside Caesar salad ($24) is old-school. The shared ritual sharpens appetites as garlic, oil, lemon and egg are beaten into unity with dashes of whatnot. The thrill is a salad that’s of the moment.
Our server left his station without explanation after assembling the dressing. Five minutes later he returned with romaine, long enough for me to measure the distance to the bowl of tan elixir, but it was out of baguette reach. The salad was delicious: dreamy croutons, pungently creamy dressing. I would have gone harder on the anchovy, but nobody asked me.
Housemade pasta has been a Lombardo strength. Gnudi are gnocchi’s rich, pudgy cousin, with dairy instead of potato. Ricotta gnudi ($24) were airy bites magicked together with enough flour to hold their shape, lolling in garlicky broth with greens, mushrooms and a topcoat of Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Orecchiette ($19) means "little ears,” and the best, supple versions without feeling grandma’s fingertips pinching my earlobes. They were tossed with enough sweet slips of caramelized cauliflower, briny capers and toasted breadcrumbs to keep it interesting, but the star was the toothsome noodles.
Bone-in half chicken ($30) boasted bronzed skin that added savory caramel to each bite. It arrived on a woodsy jumble of farro and browned mushrooms, in a fortified glace that left me sticky-lipped.
Then, unfortunately, came the osso buco ($50), whose fork-resistant meat had to be sawed from the bone. Veal marsala ($35) offered gloriously glossy sauce, but the cutlet was leathery at the edges under its prosciutto comforter.
We shook it off with dessert. Besides the house favorite froufrou cake, a white chocolate layer number, desserts ($9) included tiramisu and crème brûlée. My favorite, a toffee semifreddo whose fluffy dairy ice yielded easily to the spoon, left a whisper of caramel on my tongue.
A few cooking mistakes left me unable to offer full marks, but Ristorante Lombardo remains a top Italian fine dining destination. Then there’s the Little Club, a bar designed for talking about wine, instead of shouting at the television. Together they make the 1100 block of Hertel Avenue a place where every student of eating and drinking should take a lesson.
Ristorante Lombardo - 9 plates (out of 10)
Location: 1198 Hertel Ave. (873-4291)
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 and 5 to 11 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Prices: appetizers, $11.50-$24; pizza, $14-$16; entrees, $19-$52.
Atmosphere: buzzy when full, bursts of din
Parking: valet, street
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Gluten-free options: extensive offerings
Send restaurant suggestions and tips to email@example.com.