The term “family restaurant” means different things to different people. At Locanda del Lago it means many things. The traditional Northern Italian restaurant at Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade has stood the test of time in LA where eateries go in and out of vogue with the seasons, but a typical bustling multigenerational Saturday night crowd shows this family favorite has staying power, not just as a restaurant where children are welcome, but also where diners are treated like family.
Greeting guests at the host stand, an affable JD, in a snappy bow-tie, sets the tone for visitors. At first I thought JD mistook me for someone he knew, since his welcoming was so enthusiastic, but I later learned from our server, John, that JD is always this way.
John, who by his movie-star good looks and his expert recitation of the daily specials I presumed — and confirmed — was an actor, was pleasant and patient as my dining companion and I mulled over our options. We decided to start off with one of the restaurant’s signature cocktails, since JD had told us that the ingredients were fresh sourced just the day before from the local farmer’s market. We chose the blood orange martini — delicious and fruity, and the raspberry and lemon drop martini — very sweet, accented by a sugared rim.
We moved onto the appetizers — Burrata e Zucca; a creamy Burrata cheese with a savory-sweet butter squash compote; and the restaurant’s popular sampler of fried shrimp, calamari, smelts and zucchini. The former was a generous portion, making us wish we had ordered just one starter; and the latter was made interesting by the smelts, but overall this plate was a bit more crispy than hoped for, and since we were saving room for our entrees we had this bagged to take home.
For entrees we chose the fillet, assuming we “could not go wrong,” and John in fact reinforced this idea using these exact words. We also opted for a lobster pasta, which John highly recommended and informed us was the Chef Gianfranco Minuz’s own favorite dish to eat himself, whenever he was lucky enough there was any left at the end of a night.
While the fillet was more on the medium than the medium-rare requested, it was still a tender piece of beef with a rich Porcini mushroom sauce and served with sautéed broccolini. The pasta dish was a surprising pale green color, almost like tinted glass noodles, and while neither of expected to like it, we were pleased that it was, as promised, an exquisite treat.
We finished our dinner with a molten lava cake, which unfortunately was still chilled in the center. Nevertheless, we polished it off, and though I was certain John would have offered us another dessert if we had complained, we were quite satisfied overall with our meal.
By the time we left, after pacing ourselves through an enjoyable two-hour dinner, we noticed most of the tables around us were the same guests as when we sat down. The tables were filled with families — of grandparents, parents and children. We were amused to see one table complete filled with children — the proverbial kids table — next to their parents who were clearly savoring their long evening of dining and visiting with family.
As we made our way out, JD introduced us to the affable Michelin-starred Chef Minuz, whose menu was inspired by the tastes of the regions of Lombardy and Lake Como, and they saw us out the door, as good hosts always do at the end of an evening spend with familia; and they invited us to come again, which we certainly will.