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Locanda Del Lago: A Night in Como

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In all the many, many years I have been trolling Santa Monica's Promenade, in search of shopping and people-watching and places to eat, it had never occured to me to stop in at Locanda del Lago, an Italian restaurant right in the thick of Santa Monica's shopping mecca. I was invited out to try some of their house specialties; it's Italian cuisine in the Lombardy style, which emphasizes ingredients like fish from Lake Como, veal, butter (rather than olive oil), and risotto (rather than pasta).

Chef Davide Vedovelli, a native of Milan, has put together an extensive menu filled with Northern Italian classics like osso buco alla Milanese, trota alla comasca (trout marinated in lemon, caper, and parsley), and the restaurant's signature pasta, pizzoccheri alla valtellinese. It's a surprising mix of whole wheat pappardelle, tossed with sage, braised cabbage, diced potato, and a creamy cheese sauce.

What's also surprising is how classy and peaceful the restaurant is on the interior, while just outside the door, the Promenade roils with the consuming hordes. A table by the window is a perfect place to people-watch while enjoying Locanda's extensive wine collection and attentive service.

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The dining room is laid out with a view to the kitchen, and an attached bar keeps waiting diners entertained. Our attention quickly turned, however, to a mountain of fried parmesan, delivered to our table as an appetizer. Yes, that's right, fried parmesan -- a paper-thin sheet of cheese, quickly pan-seared in its own natural oils, which turns it crunchy and impossibly delicious. Screw the pasta, I want more of that fried cheese.

The niblets don't stop there, however: a little dish of smoked trout pate soon arrived, a taste that has made me determined to find a recipe. Another recommended dish is the bresaola, air-dried beef served with a few leaves of parmesan (unfried this time) and drizzled with olive oil. Locanda del Lago also offers a chilled veal tenderloin appetizer called vitello tonnato, once again showcasing the region's love of veal, paired with the delicate flavors of caper and tuna. The tuna tartare is also supposed to be a knock-out.

We enjoyed a wine from the Lombardy region, appropriately, a 2006 Costaripa Mazane; the service was also excellent, although after about half a bottle of that wine, our waiter (who was also Italian, with a rockin' accent) could have slopped the pasta into my lap and I wouldn't have cared a smidge. I do love restaurants that allow you to enjoy a meal at your own pace, and we were happy to hang out for hours, enjoying our meal in true European style.

Next on the menu was the pasta course, and we had to try out both the house favorite (that whole wheat pappardelle) and the night's specialty, lobster ravioli. The pappardelle really is a winner: the sweetness of braised cabbage contrasts with the fragrant crunch of fried sage, and I love the use of potato in pasta. It's a hearty dish that can be enjoyed by vegetarians as well, and in fact, Locanda del Lago has lots of menu choices for the veg-head. The lobster ravioli disappointed, however, especially when eaten alongside the fantastic pappardelle.

The osso buco is, of course, a highlight: veal shanks slow-cooked in white wine sauce, served with a very generous helping of saffron risotto. Our osso buco came with the shank bone intact, so I got to experience the inimitable taste of hot bone marrow (possibly one of my favorite things ever). The entree of rainbow trout was suffused in a light, tangy caper-lemon-anchovy sauce, and served with zucchini and potatoes au gratin. This was another dish I would be happy to prepare at home; it's a great spring or summer dish.

Other entrees of note include gnocchi with black truffle sauce and chanterelle mushrooms, butternut squash risotto with seared scallops, and fish of the day, baked in a salt crust. The restaurant offers a boggling variety of special menus if these choices aren't enough for you, including a vegetarian option, an ever-changing tasting menu, picnic lunches, and a reasonable happy hour with drink specials, appetizers, and pizzas.

I know dessert was presented and consumed at some point, but by this time, we were so heavy with food and wine that I can't for the life of me remember what we had -- I'm fairly sure gelato was involved, but red wine makes me forgetful. But if you are in the dessert mood, you can choose from panna cotta, semifreddo, tiramiso, and many other Italian standbys.

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If you'd like to check out Locanda del Lago for yourself, they are promoting a special menu for Easter this month, a three- or four-course "Buona Pasqua!" extravaganza: The three-course menu is $55.00 per person (choice of dorade or lamb), the four-course menu is $75.00 per person, and the selections are available à la carte. The wine tasting pairing is $18.00 per person.

The price range leans towards the "more expensive" category, but considering the service, ambiance, and quality of the food, Locanda del Lago is definitely worth the money. Hey, it's cheaper than a flight to Lake Como! Unless you're George Clooney. Damn, you, Clooney! Locanda del Lago will have to do.

Locanda del Lago
231 Arizona Ave.
Third Street Promenade
Santa Monica

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