I have lunch at Lago at least once a week, and dinner at least once a month. At lunch it’s become the “place to meet” for the French business community in Santa Monica. Yes, it serves Italian food, not French, but you can sit outside and there is an excellent selection of dishes at very reasonable prices. The French are very parsimonious.
Another set of friends, with whom we go to a movie once a month, like it for dinner after the movie. It’s in a great location, and there is a good selection of wine by the glass.
In a sea of mediocre restaurants, Lago stands out as one of the best Italian restaurants in Santa Monica — probably the best, and the only one I know of that features Northern Italian food. So what do I order there?
For lunch I like the seafood dishes. There is usually a fish special. Sometimes it’s a grilled sea bass, or it could be salmon. Sometimes it’s something more fancy, in a broth or with pasta. While waiting for the main course, customers can go to the very pleasant buffet offering salads, mushrooms, and varied appetizers. On the buffet this week I saw a salad bar, frittata, mixed mushrooms, trout in shredded vegetables, and ripe tomatoes with buffalo cheese.
For dinner I often start with the vitello tonnato, one of my favorite dishes. The thin slices of veal are smothered in a rich tuna flavored mayonnaise. The appetizer portion is usually enough for a meal.
The pastas are also very authentic, and although it’s not on the menu, the chef is always ready to make my favorite pasta, spaghetti carbonara. I make it at home once in a while, but it’s hard to get it just right. On the very hot spaghetti I dribble olive oil, throw in an egg yoke and stir everything up. After adding some fresh garlic, I finish with finely grated parmesan cheese. No wonder the Italians are so happy that they break out in song.
As an example of why people love this place (look at the reviews on the Internet!) I had lunch there a few days ago. Since the special fish of the day, spaghetti with trout, didn’t sound appetizing, I asked what other fish was available, and the waitress suggested the sea bass with assorted vegetables. The sea bass sounded good, but I’m not a big fan of mixed vegetables so I asked if they could substitute a few slices of eggplant in place of the vegetables. What arrived was a nice sized piece of thick sea bass, cooked to perfection (not overcooked as is so common with fish) sitting on top of three thick slices of eggplant, with an attractive lemon-based sauce around the plate. It was beautiful and delicious.
There’s no sense in my reciting the rest of the menu. Trust me, it’s varied, and there are a lot of well-prepared plates. As they say, “you can trust me, I’m a lawyer.”
Lago is a happy mix of a number of features that make it stand out: perhaps first is its location on the Third Street Promenade, so it’s great for people-watching. Also, the prices are unusually reasonable for the quality. There’s an air of authenticity to both the food and the setting where you can eat food made from recipes that are very much like those in restaurants in the Lake Como region in Italy. And the service is very professional, not California-friendly, but polite and efficient.
And finally, there’s the wine list. It’s extensive and varied, especially in its selection of Italian wines. The good part: one finds wines here that are not on the lists of other Italian restaurants. And, by and large, the prices are reasonable. Desserts are typically Italian, and well made even though not to my taste. Lunch usually runs about $15, dinner $30 to $40.
Merv Hecht, the food and wine critic for the Santa Monica Daily Press, is a wine buyer and consultant to a number of national and international food and wine companies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you go
Locanda del Lago
231 Arizona Ave.
Santa Monica, Calif., 90401