Do you think that we have enough Italian restaurants in Santa Monica? Of course there’s some reason to have some variety, since there are a number of regional Italian cuisines. But very few of the Italian restaurants really prepare the regional dishes.

One distinguishing characteristic of Italian restaurants is whether they are “new Italian” or “old style” Italian. For the old style type you could try Vito at 28 Ocean Park. For the new style I like Obica on sixth and Broadway.

There are high end Italians and low end Italians but most are in between. At the low end try Rosti on Montana. A lot of the food there is aging in a steam table, not something one sees in real Italian restaurants. On the other hand, they have a great American hamburger.

At the high-end we are blessed with Valentino’s, which has been there for many years and remains one of the top restaurants in Santa Monica. But it’s not cheap. On the other hand it’s probably less expensive then Giorgio Baldi’s in the Santa Monica Canyon, where it’s hard to drive past all the Bentlys and Porsches, and squeeze in between the too-closely spaced tables to wave at your favorite movie star.

But of all the multitude of Italian restaurants in Santa Monica, I find myself more often than not at Lago on the Promenade. While the menu is large and varied, it has the ambiance of the kind of restaurant found in the northern lake country of Italy. They offer some dishes that are hard to find elsewhere in Santa Monica. The vitello tonnato is wonderful.

Thin slices of cooked veal are served cold with a tuna flavored mayonnaise on top, a few chips of Parmesan cheese and a touch of parsley. Priced as an appetizer I love it as a main course for lunch.

Also at lunchtime there is a salad bar, which is also enough for a fine lunch.

Not only are there salad makings, but three or four typical Italian dishes such as squid salad, tuna salad, mushrooms, and sometimes some cold cuts.

Some of my favorite dishes are not always on the menu, but the chef doesn’t hesitate to make them if requested. When I’m really hungry I like spaghetti carbonara. Olive oil is sprinkled over hot linguini noodles, with bits of guanciale (something like Canadian bacon), and then an egg yoke is massaged into the mix to mate with the olive oil into a creamy coating. A touch of Parmesan cheese is then grated on top. Pasta doesn’t get much better than this.

Other times I have the seafood cioppino, made slightly spicy upon request, which to my taste is the best in town. A variation on this is the scoglio, basically the same dish but with spaghetti soaking up the thickened broth.

That takes care of lunch. For dinner I love the meat and fish dishes, with a half bottle of real Italian wine, such as Vermentino or super Tuscan. In fact the wine list is excellent, and the fact that they have a nice selection of half bottles is a bonus.

OK! What’s the catch? My readers know I never am completely satisfied with any restaurant. Well, the desserts are pretty commercial. The pizza, in spite of the new pizza oven, remains ordinary until they spend some time training the prep guys.

The cappuccino and espresso fall well short of the incredible product at Luxxe nearby on Montana. And they don’t serve biscotti with the coffee! Worse than that, the two beautiful identical twin waitresses were scooped up by a TV producer to play in a movie on the life of John Paul Getty. What a loss!

It’s really nice to have genuine Italian waiters, and a real live Italian owner (and his lovely wife) talking to the customers. After a half bottle on good Italian wine, and a bit of conversation in Italian, I almost think I’m back in the old country.

Locanda Del Lago
231 Arizona Ave, Santa Monica, CA 90401, (310) 451-3525, lagosantamonica.com

Merv Hecht, like many Harvard Law School graduates, went into the wine business after practicing law. In 1988 he began writing restaurant reviews and books. His latest book is “The Instant Wine Connoisseur, 3d edition” available on Amazon. He currently works for several companies that source and distribute food and wine products internationally. Send your comments to: mervynhecht@yahoo.com.

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