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dineLA: Locanda del Lago

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You may not be able to share lunch by the water in George Clooney's villa, but you can get a taste of Lake Como right here in Santa Monica. Its location on the 3rd Street Promenade may make some people think the restaurant is a tourist trap, but once ensconced in the tasteful high-ceilinged, white tablecloth restaurant it becomes clear this is not some cheesy chain. Locanda del Lago is a special occasion restaurant, but it is also down-to-earth enough that you can come-as-you-are straight off the Promenade.

Open since 1991, Locanda del Lago concentrates on the cuisine of Bellagio, on the coast of Lake Como, although Chef Roberto Maggioni has brought some Spanish and French influences to the menu. He also tosses a little molecular gastronomy into the mix, so don't be surprised to find a foam on your plate.

LAist sampled Locanda's dineLA dinner menu by invitation on Sunday night. The dineLA menu showcases the restaurant's classic dishes, so the diner can be confident a favorite dish will be available on their return visit. The 3-Course Dinner ($34) comes with the option of a wine pairing ($18, dinner only). But we are cocktail girls and tried out the Negroni, made with Campari, Sweet Vermouth, and Gin. Lago's signature Caprese (Cherry Tomato, Basil, Crop Tomato Vodka, Balsamic) was just weird enough that we had to try it. Surprisingly, it was not like a Bloody Mary, but more like a sweet Cosmo-type drink. The cool basil enhanced the sweetness of the cherry tomato, and the hint of Balsamic brought the flavors together.

The amuse bouche of tuna aioli was a harbinger of the meal to come -- fresh, creamy, and impossible to stop eating. To begin the dineLA menu, we chose Caramelized Bone Marrow, Robiola-Truffle Honey Bruschetta, Spinach Salad, and Olive Oil Mustard. The bone was split lengthwise rather than the traditional cross cut, making it far easier to scoop out the rich marrow, or as I call it, meat-butter. The greens cut the fat of the marrow, but for me the honey bruschetta was unnecessary given the caramelization, so the bread basket did double duty as the perfect marrow vehicle.

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Some of the dineLA restaurants are offering customers the opportunity to "upgrade" to more upscale plates for a few dollars more a dish. For an additional $3 there is a starter of tartares. The Ahi Tuna was Sushi-Grade fresh and well-cut, mixed with fennel, capers, and JJ Lone Ranch avocado sauce. However, the swordfish tartare stole the show. Swordfish, House-Smoked Mussels, Black Olives, and Orange Gastric do not seem like compatible flavors at first glance. The olives dominated any fishiness, and the orange balanced out the flavors almost like a ceviche.

Other starters on offer are Chilled Veal Tenderloin, Creamy Tuna-Caper Aioli and Burrata Cheese, as well as Coppa, Fair Hills Farms Pink Lady Apples, with Balsamic Reduction

For the main course our curiosity was piqued by the Wild Boar Tortellini, Pink Lady Apples, Pinenuts, and Brown Butter. Wild boar is very similar to short ribs, it turns out, and the shredded meat made a lovely pasta filling. The apples were a standard pairing for pork and the brown butter sauced the dish with a light touch, allowing the rich, fatty meat to shine.

Butternut Squash Risotto, Seared Scallops, and Balsamic Glaze had the most lovely presentation, with the scallop nestled in the shell like Venus rising from the sea, but without the nudity. And without all that hair. In fact, hair is really gross. Let's just forget that simile altogether. Nonetheless, it was a beautiful plate.

Wild Fresh Water Salmon, Valtellina Montasio Cheese, Spiced Wine Risotto, Grilled Asparagus are offered for an additional $6. The salmon is clean and subtle, lacking the intensity that makes some people hesitant to order it. As a bonus, you get a rectangle of salmon skin so you can finally see what the judges on cooking shows are always swooning about. Imagine taking a bite of nori, but it instantly melts in your mouth, into a rich, fatty taste of the sea. Sushi butter.

For an additional $8 you can order the Filet Mignon, Pomegranate Sauce, Pumpkin Purée, Rosemary-Roasted Heirloom Beets. I normally don't go for the upsell, but this is one case where it is really worth it. The filet was so tender my dining partner wished she could sleep on a pillow made out of it. But I'd rather not dwell on the consequences of furnishing one's house with meat. The sweet heirloom beets were cooked to the perfect balance between soft and toothsome.

Other dinner options we did not taste were Rainbow Heirloom Potato Gnocchi, Goat Milk Béchamel Sauce, Baby Arugula, Toasted Almonds as well as the Chicken Breast Stuffed with Mushrooms, Lettuce & Fontina, Parma Prosciutto Wrap, Green Beans, Fingerling Potatoes (add $4 for the chicken).

To finish, we politely resisted the Frozen Hazelnut Ice Cream Cake with Caramel Sauce, but finally had to give in to the other desserts. Resisted is a relative term. Allow us some dignity. We were warned that the Warm Cherry Pie with Vanilla Gelato would be tart, but did not find it so. The tart was not "American Pie" with chunks of whole cherries, but more like a dried cherry filling, almost like the thick jam in a Linzer Torte. Locanda adorably refers to the Rich Chocolate Fudge, Sugar Cookie Crumbles, and Vanilla Bean Sauce as "Chocolate Salami." There was some concern the whimsical name would be offputting, but we immediately got the idea and after having a taste, you could have called it anything you wanted. Make me a pillow out of that!

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