Many restaurants come and go in a flash, so when a restaurant reaches a big anniversary, there’s reason to take notice.
This year Locanda del Lago marks 20 years at its location on the Third Street Promenade at Arizona Avenue. This is a prime corner that draws locals and travelers alike. It’s also right in the middle of the downtown farmers’ market.
Owner West Hooker-Poletti is a native of Milan and named his restaurant after the inns along Lake Como in northern Italy. The restaurant specializes in dishes from the Lombardy region of Italy, made with seasonal market produce.
A new executive chef, Gianfranco Minuz, joined the restaurant in October. Minuz is from Friuli-Venezia Giula in northeast Italy and has a long career working at restaurants in Italy and the U.S.
The restaurant’s menu has homemade pastas, risottos, pizzas, and entrees, many of which are indicated as Lake Como specialties. There’s also a section of small tasting plates like roasted bone marrow with crispy risotto cake ($7) and sun-dried agone, a shad-like fish from Lake Como, served with grilled polenta ($10). Look toward the open kitchen and you’ll see an additional weekly chef’s seasonal market menu written on a blackboard, along with a list of the farms that supplied the week’s market ingredients. At lunchtime a popular antipasto buffet can be ordered as an appetizer ($9) or entree ($14).
Try the Pizzoccheri alla Valtellinese ($18), homemade buckwheat pasta prepared fondue-style with Bitto cheese, roasted garlic, savoy cabbage and potatoes. This hearty dish reflects the culinary influence of Switzerland, which borders Lombardy.
Roasted chestnut and blueberry risotto ($20) is a new dish introduced by Minuz. The tart blueberries from Harry’s Berries pop in your mouth, balancing the nuttiness of the chestnuts and the rich chewiness of the rice grains that are stained a startling blue color.
One of the menu’s popular entrees is Chilean sea bass baked in a salt and egg white crust ($36). The crust is cracked open tableside, and the juicy, tender flesh that emerges is served with a colorful mix of sauteed,thinly-sliced veggies.
Something new that Minuz has brought to the restaurant is a whole animal dinner series he calls “morso della bestia” (bite of the beast), a nod to the snout-to-tail philosophy of carnivore cooking. The series launched in October with a six-course menu ($60) of a market greens salad adorned with lamb belly; sauteed lamb offals with grilled polenta; hand-cut pappardelle pasta with lamb ragu; and a garlic-thyme roasted leg of lamb. The monthly dinner is served family-style on the last Thursday of each month and includes unlimited house wine.
On the other hand, Lago also serves a Meatless Monday menu that includes fish but no dairy or meat.
“Our Meatless Monday menu was inspired by (film director) James Cameron, a long-time customer who talks so passionately about how much it would help our environment if everyone avoided eating meat just one day per week,” said General Manager Megan Sheehy.
Market-inspired desserts ($8-$15), gelatos, ice cream and sorbets are all made in-house. A recent dessert special on the weekly seasonal menu was a tasty northern-style ricotta cheesecake served with candied orange and vanilla sauce.
The wine list is extensive and includes a good selection of wines by the glass. There’s also a farm-to-glass menu of signature cocktails ($12-$14) like a Caprese Martini made with vodka, cherry tomato, fresh basil, and balsamic vinegar, and the George Clooney Martini – grapefruit, blood orange, Aperol, and gin (Clooney owns a villa on Lake Como, as do many other celebrities).
The restaurant’s interior feels rustic and cozy, but on a warm, sunny day the outdoor patio seating along Arizona Avenue makes for good people-watching, catching-up with friends, and enjoying what might come closest to a taste of Lake Como without ever crossing the ocean.
Locanda del Lago is located at 231 Arizona Ave. For more information, call 310.451.3525 or visit lagosantamonica.com.