With its Italian-leaning menu and strip-mall location in Pickerington, Lomonico's offers locals a way to break free of the chains.
Who would guess one of the best things I ate at a family-owned restaurant called Lomonico's was not one of the pastas or specialty wood-fired pizzas, nor even the meatballs made from great-grandma's recipe? Rather, it was the cheeseburger.
New Jersey-based Pat LaFrieda, a meat purveyor with humble beginnings in Italy circa the 1920s, supplies the beef in this delicious, fragrant burger ($13). It's topped with Gouda cheese, roasted tomato and a messy slaw of lettuce and mayonnaise, served on a flaky croissant bun.
I know what you're thinking. You don't go to an Italian restaurant and order a burger. But despite many clues that say otherwise-a custom wood-fired pizza oven, a black mustachioed chef gnome holding business cards at the entrance, the Sicilian name-Lomonico's is not a red-sauce joint. It's a grab bag of American comfort food with a few classic Italian dishes thrown in.
That means you may be twirling spaghetti ($13) and sipping a glass of goes-with-everything Aruma Malbec ($9) while your friend washes down chicken pot pie ($12) with a pint of Fat Tire Ale ($5).
It all adds up to a sort of elevated weeknight cooking. Easy, straightforward and not too fancy (but at least the kids are fed).
The same might be said about the ambience.
The luminous sign outside, with its big loopy L, conveys elegance-especially compared to the strip-mall neighbors, Roosters and Petland. I wondered if we would be dining among couples slurping two ends of the same noodle, "Lady and the Tramp"-style. Not to worry. The interior is a neutral, no-frills space with shiny cement floors and about as much romance as the international aisle at Giant Eagle. It's divided into different areas: an open dining room of standard-issue wood tables that can be pushed together for large parties; a teaching kitchen with stainless-steel prep tables where students sit in pairs; and a market, which is composed of a few shelves sparsely stocked with dry pastas and canned tomatoes. Many restaurateurs in this city would love to have half the space Lomonico's isn't using. Why not replace the unnecessary market with seating for waiting guests?
It's too bad the most interesting attraction- a white-brick igloo of a pizza oven with a fiery opening that glows orange-can't be seen unless you crane your neck on the way past the open kitchen.
You can enjoy the fruits of that oven, however, with five different specialty pizzas. The crusts on the two we tried were pleasantly chewy with a light sheen of oil. The Smoked Chicken ($14) with coins of jalapeno was on the dry side. We liked the Roasted Vegetable ($14) pie with cool dollops of ricotta just fine but wished for more caponata.
Pizzas aside, the menu is divided into starters and entrees. Many starters, like the lobster roll ($12) and trio of meatballs ($9), are big enough to be dinner. They say appetizers are often the best part of a menu, but that axiom didn't hold true here.
Carpaccio ($11), a beefier version of the paper-thin, pink ribbons you may be imagining, was one nice surprise. Ohio-sourced filet mignon is sliced as thick as bacon and studded with kosher salt and capers. But the Sicilian Rice Balls ($7), deep-fried orbs of creamy white risotto, were bland. And a raw kale salad ($7) had the flavor and texture of curly parsley.
Chef Andrew Borenstein previously cooked at Marcella's, home of the veal meatball so tender, you can spoon it like ice cream. So I was curious how Lomonico's Meatballs ($9) would stack up. With just beef and pork in the mix, they weren't as soft or nuanced in flavor. But beneath those meatballs was the other best thing I ate at Lomonico's: polenta. Made with cornmeal, heavy cream and parmesan, it's hard to believe there's no cheddar in this coarse, cheesy porridge. Our server told us he often eats it after work with a little marinara-the perfect acidic counterweight. I would pay $9 just for a bowl of it-hold the meatballs.
On a subsequent visit, I ordered the Braised Short Rib ($21) mainly so I could have that polenta again. The boneless, fork-tender slab of beef was a great match for my new favorite starch, especially as the savory mushroom demi-glaze seeped in at the edges. We also liked the salmon ($19), seared as golden as a Ritz cracker and balanced on a wobbly bed of par-cooked Brussels sprouts. Like the short ribs, it gets a flavor boost from a lovely sauce-this time, a vin blanc.
All the other entrees I tried ranged from mediocre to must-avoid. A plate of pasta carbonara ($13) topped with a poached egg was so salty and hot with pepper and garlic, I could barely eat it. Lots of large, tender shrimp were bathing in the Seafood Trio ($20). But the littleneck clams were rubbery as chewing gum, and the Prince Edward Island mussels seemed to cower in their shells from the aggressive broth of tomatoes and jalapenos. Even if I'd wanted to sop up what little broth there was, two naked slices of grilled bread as hard as pumice weren't up to the task.
The Bolognese ($13) was also a letdown. The first time I had this northern Italian dish 20 years ago, we had just trudged into Luxembourg, homesick and hungry backpackers 15 days into the trip. Our hosts took us to a white tablecloth place in town, where I was served a nest of noodles blanketed by a rich, burgundy sauce thick with ground meat. Lomonico's version didn't quite live up to memory. The wide pappardelle noodles were too al dente; the sauce that coated them was too light on meat.
Lomonico's isn't perfect. But judging by the packed parking lot, it has endeared itself to the neighborhood. In fact, the owners, chef Borenstein and brothers Craig and Mark Lomonico, who are often there chatting up tables, may have underestimated the community's appetite for a good, independently owned place to eat.
The staff seemed overwhelmed one Friday night when the place filled up by 7 p.m. The reservation I'd made a few hours earlier had been lost. Drinks took a long time to arrive. A good 30 minutes ticked by between courses.
If not always slow, the service is extremely casual. Servers are friendly, but there's no hiding their inexperience. They could just as easily work at the movie theater down the street or be the neighbor kid who mows your lawn for $20.
Columbus harbors many hidden gems in its strip malls. Perennial favorites like Moretti's on Sawmill Road, Kihachi and Yanni's come to mind-and there are dozens more. Lomonico's beats nearby chains for an easy dinner out. But not even the polenta is enough to make me drive 40 minutes and change freeways three times.
Lomonico's recently announced plans to open a second location Downtown with a menu that suits more adventurous tastes. To that I say, don't underestimate the palates of suburbanites.