Lugano - Salt Lake City, Utah


Lugano
3364 S 2300 East
Salt Lake City, UT
(801) 412-9994

http://www.luganorestaurant.com/

Date of Visit: Saturday, January 3, 2009
Time: Dinner - 7:00 PM
Server: Tanya L.
Number of Diners: 4

Ratings
Food Quality: 7
Service: 8
Ambiance: 7


In 2001 Chef Greg Neville opened this place away from the competitively-crowded Salt Lake City center. It received Best New Restaurant kudos that year, and has racked up awards every year since then. I have eaten Greg's food before, trucked across town and reheated on a kitchen stove (for 50 people!) and it was fantastic. Ever since I had been looking for an excuse to visit his restaurant. The website claims it's the best Italian restaurant in Salt Lake City - a bold claim that is somewhat suspect due to the presence of Cucina Toscana, but it is certainly the best Italian restaurant that's NOT in the center of Salt Lake City. It's received Wine Spectator Awards of Excellence for the past several years, and has Zagat Top 20 ratings as well, so one can expect good things. And it is conveniently located just south of Interstate 80, so it's easier to get to for out-of-towners than the city center. There is a bit of street parking and a modest lot (all free) behind the building that can accommodate most of the demand. Behind the lot is a ski rental shop and a few other outbuildings that Greg has acquired to make the Lugano "campus." The devastating economic times have (temporarily?) derailed his plans to open a breakfast/lunch place, so the rooms are now set for private dinner functions, culinary classes, and the like.

A need to get together with another couple provided the excuse to dine at Lugano. The main room is L-shaped and can seat maybe 75. Since others were involved I went forward with reservations - no problem at all for 7PM prime time just two days in advance. We arived right on time and were greeted and seated in less than five minutes, with an apology for not being quicker about it. The room was comfortable and almost, but not quite, crowded. The tables were all full, and a handful of folks were waiting hopefully for an opening. Our server did not introduce herself, but wore a large name tag with "Tanya" imprinted neatly. She made sure we had appropriate menus and tap water glasses filled, then left us to chat and peruse. At least 15 appealing appetizers were on the menu, and I noted two choices of wood-fired pizza (Margherita and Quattro Stagione) listed among the Entrees. The entire party greeted my suggestion of a Margherita pizza as a table appetizer, and Tanya overhearing as she approached the table, rushed to make it happen. Our companions had brought along a very nice Seghisio Old Vine Zinfandel 2006 vintage, which Tanya eagerly opened and poured for us (no corkage fee appeared on the check). With the fresh bread, butter and olive selection, the wine was young bold, and fruity. With the pizza it was an excellent complement. Our server described the daily specials, and at least one diner ended up changing a selection based on those. Lugano features a daily risotto, and this day's feature was pea and marscapone. Tanya also noted that the daily risotto could be substituted for the starch with any entree, and I elected to do just that. I also asked for San Pellegrino to avoid the chlorine in the tap water. They had another brand, temporarily sold out of sparkling, and still water was an adequate choice.

What we had with descriptions...

Appetizer - PIZZA MARGHERITA WITH FRESH MOZZARELLA, SAN MARZANO TOMATOES, BASIL & OREGANO 14.95

Salad - "BELL FARMS" ORGANIC MIXED FIELD GREENS, BLUE CHEESE CROSTINI & BALSAMIC VINAIGRETTE 7.95

Entree - TAGLIATTELLE WITH WILD MUSHROOMS, PROSCUITTO "COTTO", WILTED ARUGULA, PINOT GRIGIO, TRUFFLE OIL & PORCINI CREAM SAUCE 16.95

Entree - SPAGHETTI WITH SHRIMP, MUSSELS, CLAMS, TODAY'S SPECIAL FISH, GARLIC, CHILI FLAKES, BASIL & TOMATO 18.95

Entree - Special - PUMPKIN AND MARSCAPONE RAVIOLI, FRESH VEGETABLE ASSORTMENT 17.95

Entree - GRILLED POUNDED CHICKEN BREAST, SAGE/LEMON MARINADE, PARMESAN MASHED POTATOES & RED WINE REDUCTION 18.95 (Substitute Daily Risotto for Potato)

Wine - Wishing Tree Unoaked Chardonnay 2004 (Western Australia) - $36

Dessert - Cappuccino - 4.75

Dessert - Tiramisu - 6.95

Dessert - Lavender Panna Cotta with Cat's Tongue Cookies and 12 year old Balsamic 6.95

Even though all pricing is a la carte, the prices are very reasonable, possibly due to the "suburban" location of the restaurant. The salads were fresh, organic, and very tasty. The pizza was very good as an appetizer, though some quibbles could be taken that an excellent tomato sauce was used instead of fresh tomatoes (though it is mid-winter, after all!), and there could have been a touch more fresh basil on it. The entrees were, for the most part, stunning. Fresh ingredients, lovingly prepared, and sauces cooked to perfection. Let's take each in turn... The tagliattelle was generous with the mushrooms and prosciutto taking front stage in the dish and the sauce application was discreet enough not to drown the whole thing. Even though she complained that the dish was "missing something" and "almost bland," our dainty dining friend left nothing on her plate save for a few drops of sauce. The ravioli special was sweet and creamy - a cross between ultralight cheese ravioli and pumpkin pie. While not to my taste, everyone else at the table raved about it. The chicken was moist and excellent, and the pea/marscapone risotto substitution was a delight.

Perhaps the only disappointment of the evening was the spaghetti. Easily the best looking of the entrees selected, the seafood was liberally doused in a red marinara MEAT sauce. The sauce by itself was bold, hearty, and seething with pork, lamb, and perhaps beef. Combining this sauce with mussels, clams, and shrimp was an odd choice. The delicate seafood was made messy to deal with removing shells, and the flavor was completely overwhelmed by the sauce. Meat-flavored clams, anyone? While the result could not have in any way been classified as bad, it was a strange method to add protein to the dish and wasted all the nuance of the flavors of the seafood. It also clashed with the diner's expectation of the dish, having been labeled as Seafood Spaghetti rather than Spaghetti with MEAT Sauce and seafood chucked in at the end. A couple of nice, New York style meatballs would have been more appropriate and more welcome. Though had that been the case, our diner would have selected something else. The fact that it was all eaten speaks to the quality of the dish, disappointments aside.

I am a big fan of unoaked Chardonnays, which taste of grapes rather than vanilla. Our Wishing Tree selection did not disappoint, and it made an excellent complement to everything except the surprising MEAT sauce. As is customary in Utah, paying $36 for a $10 bottle is generally acceptable, as it beats paying $175 for a $40 wine. Our practice of bringing along a $40 bottle that was not on the restaurant's extensive wine list is also an accepted norm. There were plenty of reasonably priced wines (for the area) listed to experiment with, but it's more sensible to experiment at retail than at restaurant prices! Our unoaked Chardonnay was a clear winner.

The service was excellent. Tanya worked several tables pretty much solo, with one unobtrusive bus-person working the same tables independently. The only half-slip was that I had to ask twice for the bottled water, and no charge for it appeared on the check. I do not know whether the lack of corkage and water charges were oversights, generosity, or driven by economic conditions.

The desserts were outstanding and paired well with the cappuccinos - especially the tiramisu, which was significantly better than a homemade version I'd tried two weeks prior - and that was homemade by a professional chef for his mother's birthday! The panna cotta measured up well, creamy, light and delicate. The "cat's tongue" cookies were also light and very crunchy, providing the perfect textural contrast to the creamy dessert. They may have been out of 12 year old balsamic, as the panna cotta was served with two delicious, colored sauces.

All in all the experience was a worthy one. Food and service were up to par, even on a busy Saturday night, and the prices were very reasonable given the quality of the ingredients and care in their preparation. In Utah the service is often a weak link, but Tanya did very well attending to us seamlessly. We happily left her a $40 tip for the $190 tab.

Greg Neville is a people person, and he works hard before service to set up the kitchen so that he can spend half the time during service in the front of the house. While he visits most tables seated during the dinner, answering questions and seeking feedback, he makes a point to thank each and every patron as they leave the restaurant. He clearly pours his heart and soul into the place, and I plan to revisit Lugano again. Local foodies praise the food at Lugano. While the food is adequate, Greg's presence and good service make the package complete, perhaps explaining the raves.

Lugano - RECOMMENDED if you order carefully

Highs: Fresh ingredients, creative risottos daily, comfortable atmosphere, reasonable prices for the quality of food, gracious host
Lows: Meaty seafood dish

Bon App├ętit! - W. Ego

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