Taste the World / Ristorante Lombardo
Photos by kc kratt
1198 Hertel Avenue, Buffalo; 873-4291 or ristorantelombardo.com
Owners: Lombardo family
Cuisine: Regional Italian
In business since: 1975
Thomas Lombardo and his son, Thomas Jr., opened what was then Lombardo’s in the spring of 1975, as an Italian-American restaurant. Starting in the 1990s, Thomas Jr. and wife, Donna, found inspiration in their regular trips to Italy, and the restaurant slowly began offering more regional Italian dishes. His son, Tommy, returned to Buffalo to partner in the family business in 2012. Today, Chef Michael Obarka and the Lombardo family have created an institution that is at once a paradigm of Italian-American standards and a trip through the old country, all in one.
Tommy, there are a lot of Italian restaurants in Buffalo. What’s unique about Ristorante Lombardo?
I like to say we’re like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde because we’ve got a foot in each cuisine. One of our most popular dishes is our Caesar salad for two, served tableside, and, while that’s a holdover from what we used to be, alongside that, we have our handmade pastas and regional Italian dishes. We’ve got one of the biggest fine dining menus in the area, because we like to offer people options while focusing on good ingredients.
How have you stayed relevant for over forty years?
We’ve done a good job of keeping the menu fresh. We’ve always been open to just trying new things. It’s the same story with our decor and wine and cocktail program. There’s not a lot of people doing the kind of Italian we’re doing. We’ve done a good enough job of building up our brand so that people know what they’re getting, although, once a week or so, we still get people calling for spaghetti to go.
Why regional Italian? Why not stick with one?
That’s what people love about Italy: it’s a hodgepodge of cuisines all packed under one umbrella. It’s extremely diverse, and there are so many amazing recipes, amazing pasta, amazing produce. If we were to focus on only one cuisine, that would be our downfall. The restaurant is bigger than any one person’s intentions. It dictates to us what it needs to be. It really has a life of its own.
Mike, you said your orecchiette with cauliflower sums up Italian cuisine. Tell me about that.
We make a simple flour and water dough that has a good bite to it, as opposed to our egg dough—used to make our stuffed pastas and tagliatelle—which has a softer, more inviting texture. We are essentially taking something totally humble, cauliflower, and luring out the flavor by caramelizing it in a bit of butter that we let brown. All it is, is butter, pasta, cauliflower, shallots, chili flakes, salt-packed capers, lemon zest, and seasoned bread crumbs. Even the bread crumbs are a move from the Cucina Povera. Poor folks didn’t have money to buy cheese, so they would season and toast bread crumbs for a little pick-me-up in texture and flavor. It doesn’t hurt that a totally satisfying bowl of pasta is vegetarian, and can be turned vegan by using some buttery olive oil in place of the actual butter.
Novelist Lizz Schumer is a journalism professor at Canisius.