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DineLA 2009: Locanda del Lago

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Locanda del Lago sits on a prime piece of Santa Monica real estate, at the corner of 3rd and Arizona, with a patio and floor to ceiling windows looking into the heart of the eternally bustling Third Street Promenade. And just as shoppers and looky-loos alike keep the street humming with vibrancy, the atmosphere inside the cozy and inviting Locanda del Lago is just as vibrant, and even more welcoming. LAist was invited to try their DineLA menu a few days before the event began, and to experience their hospitality and the cuisine of Bellagio and the Northern Lakes region of Italy.

"Buona sera!" is the warm welcome at the door, and we were led to our window-side table. Their DineLA dinner menu features some of their signature dishes, and our server pointed out her favorite options, as well as the ones that truly showcase the flavors of the region and the restaurant's specialties. They also offer a wine tasting pairing, which we opted to sample as well. Their staff is trained about the wines they carry--the wine list is an impressive tome bearing hundreds of selections, so knowing you can count on your server to help wade through it and find a glass or bottle to your liking is an immense benefit. But, if you'd rather BYO, Locanda del Lago also offers corkage for $20.

After snacking on the delicate but rich fried parmesan that arrived at the table, as well as the bread and a seafood spread (which, alas, went unexplained, but certainly not unappreciated), we selected our starters: Vitello Tonnato (chilled veal tenderloin, sliced thinly and topped with a creamy tuna-caper aioli) and Gamberi al Prosciutto (Tiger shrimp in Parma prosciutto with argula, shallot, and orange). The shrimp were plump, cooked nicely, and wrapped in the most irresistable of garnishes--salty pork, in this case in the form of prosciutto. The vitello tonnato--a dish not seen on many menus--was a treat. The veal was tender, and tucked beneath a blanket of the creamy, hearty, tangy aioli. It is a rich starter, but the coolness of the chilled meat and the thin spread of aioli add an unexpected sense of lightness to the dish.

Although we'd sipped cocktails before the appetizer--a Negroni (Campari, Sweet Vermouth and Gin) for me, a Bellini (Prosecco, Peach Nectar and a hint of Raspberry) for my guest)--we were happy to see that a crisp and fruity class of Prosecco Brut (Castello di Banfi "Maschio") accompanied the appetizer. Prosecco is Italy's wonderful sparkling white wine that can be, sometimes, more lovely than France's Champagne, and a great way to open an Italian meal.

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For main dishes we opted to try the Petto di Pollo "Contessa Branca"--a chicken breast stuffed with mushrooms, lettuce, and fontia, wrapped in (hooray!) prosciutto, and served with green beans and fingerling potatoes, and the Branzino al Finocchietto--a whole Mediterranean Striped Bass in a creamy fennel sauce with fresh vegetables and black basmati rice. The chicken was tender and rich with the prosciutto wrap and the cheese stuffing, but the fish was the star of the show. It's served whole--yes, head on--and has a rather commanding presence at the table. The bass is moist and flavorful; it was cooked perfectly, and I didn't want to waste a single speck of fish. Paired with the entree course is a lovely Valpolicella, Allegrini 2006; a lovely pairing that called for a second pour split between us.

DineLA means you're going all the way, though, so after a break, it's time to step up to the plate--the dessert plate. We shared one each of their Semifreddo di Zabaglione (Frozen Hazelnut Ice Cream Cake with Caramel Sauce) and the Crostata Rustia alle Cieliege (Warm Cherry Pie with Vanilla Gelato). The desserts were lovely, and, the Cherry Pie was actually an unexpected treat; I had not expected that dish from an Italian eatery. It was an individual lattice-top pie with velvety gelato, and the Hazelnut dessert was also delicious, and not too heavy, which is nice after such a robust meal. With dessert they pair a sweet Vin Santo (Badia a Coltibuono 2002) which had the promised notes of apricot, and was good to the last drop.

Locanda del Lago's DineLA menu was a pleasant surprise because it actually features no pasta--something unexpected from an Italian restaurant. We were told that they wanted to really showcase the best of their regional specialties, and to expose diners who are new to their eatery to what they are known for. Co-owner West Hooker chatted with us about how happy they are to be part of DineLA again this year, and it is evident that he is very proud of his Northern Italian heritage, his restaurant, his chefs, and the food they serve. He was a welcoming host, and our server was knowledgeable and friendly, which made for a very nice dining experience--an experience we could see other patrons having at other tables, as the "Buona sera!" greeting echoed through the night from the hostess' stand.

The DineLA dinner is $44, the wine pairing a very worthwhile $18. They also offer a $28 lunch menu (which includes the Vitello Tonnato starter and the Cherry Pie dessert). You can peruse all their menus via their webpage.

Locanda del Lago
231 Arizona Ave, Santa Monica
(310) 451-3525

Apologies for the poor quality of some of the photos; ambient lighting + reflective surfaces + booze = fuzzy images.

More DineLA 2009 on LAist: The First Bite, SimonLA, Campanile.

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