Above: Black Spaghetti; Photograph by Julie Bidwell
So many ingredients are stirred into the mix of a successful restaurant, and good design is key among them. One of the first things that strikes you when you walk into Lugano, the new Italian eatery from the owners of Zaza and Dolce in Stamford and Molto in Fairfield, is that the cavernous space (most recently home to Bistro Latino) has morphed into something more cozy and casual. While the bar extends from the entry area all the way into the open dining room, there are rows of booths with red leather seating and half-moon banquettes as well as regular tables, creating welcoming pockets of seating. The smaller dining room to the left of the entry allows for a quieter ambience or private-party gatherings. With that endless bar (complete with bag hooks and USB charging stations), happy hour specials, and a small-plate-centric menu, this is a prime spot for drinks and light bites. But the cushy seating reflects the mangia-and-stay-awhile vibe. At a recent Sunday night dinner, our server suggested we order at our leisure, one course at a time if we liked. “It’s your table and you can stay for four hours if you like,” he said. Wow! Not sure of the last time I’ve heard that kind of greeting. The scene here may be trendy, but the hospitality is old-school.
From the Lugano menu, a sampling of salumi and formagi is a must, and the Piccolo Selezione gets you a pleasant creamy mozzarella, prosciutto and your choice of salumi (speck, soppressata, mortadella, etc.). Deal alert: From 4 to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday, Social Hour tapas range from $3.50 to $5 and glasses of wine are just $5. Our favorites among the tapas were the portabella served with crumbled gorgonzola and balsamic, and the terrific meatballs; opt for the “tasting” to try beef, turkey and spicy beef. The chef’s version of roasted Brussels sprouts brings a new level of decadence to the humble veggies, with chopped pancetta and a honey-truffle glaze. Crispy artichokes were, unfortunately, not so crispy on the night we ordered them. But the eggplant rollatini was a good rendition of an old favorite.
For a salad starter, I preferred the Insalata di Casa, a very fresh mix of greens and fennel and shaved parmesan brightened by a lemony vinaigrette, to the chopped salad, which relies on hearts of palm as its primary ingredient, and the resulting mix with tomatoes and other veggies seemed a bit mushy. The salad with grilled Tuscan skirt steak makes a satisfying main for carb counters, provided you skip the roasted potatoes.
But why count anything when you’re at a restaurant that promises creative pastas and hearty mains? I liked the black spaghetti, colored by squid ink, with a bold red sauce laced with slices of garlic and bottarga (dried fish eggs). The nightly special includes a risotto of the day, and we savored the pairing with shaved parmesan, mushrooms and truffle with grilled shrimp on top. One entrée we’d definitely order again is the Branzino Picatta, pan-seared sea bass—which can be served whole or without the head and tail—in a light white wine, caper and lemon sauce with spinach and roasted potatoes, tender and delicious. The Sole Francese, also in a lemon and white wine sauce, was nearly as good, though saltier than some at the table would like.
Instead of dessert, you might indulge in some limoncello or a Grannie’s Nightcap with rye, sweet vermouth and Drambuie. True to that one server’s promise, at each dinner we’ve had here, we were left to linger over our sweets and drinks, even when we were only drinking water. There are some standard desserts such as raspberry cheesecake, chocolate pot de crème and cannolis, but the best option is the tiramisu, a lush cake-like version made in-house. The bill arrived tucked into a small leather book filled with diners’ comments, several noting, “Can’t wait to come back.” See you at Social Hour.
1. The signature Lambrusco cocktail, a blend of lightly sparkling red wine with pineapple-infused vodka and Aperol, pairs well with the salumi, and it’s $6.50 during Social Hour, Monday through Friday from 4 to 7 p.m., when wines are $5 a glass and tapas start at $3.50.
2. Co-owner Rose Dionne’s top tapas: “I love the roasted Brussels sprouts, they’re a top seller and also the grilled baby lamb chops.” Her entrée faves: pork chop balsamic with cherry peppers, branzino picatta and chicken parmesan.
3. For special occasions and parties, Lugano can accommodate up to thirty people for sit-down dinners in the smaller dining room. It’s booking now for the holidays.
LUGANO WINE BAR & SALUMERIA
1392 East Putnam Ave., Old Greenwich
Monday–Friday, 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m.
Saturday & Sunday, 11:30 a.m.–10:30 p.m.;
brunch is served until 3 p.m. along with the regular menu