That's Amore: Lago

Chilean sea bass with roasted red pepper and lobster cognac sauce is one example of Lago's predilection for all the ocean has to offer.
I wasn't looking to fall in love. I anticipated this might be a one-night stand. But from the moment I walked in, there was a sense of promise and possibility. As the evening progressed, the attraction grew. The chemistry was good, the vibe just right, and I suspected this was the start of something.Could this crush turn into more? I was determined to find out. So I went back a few days later. There was no denying it this time. I was hooked on Lago, the Italian-inspired Tremont restaurant that opened in September.Everything about the place appeals to me from the menu heavy on housemade pasta to servers who can accurately and helpfully describe every dish.The food is creative without being overly fussy. Chef and co-owner Jeff Fisher stays connected to the roots of this beloved cuisine without being limited by them. His wedding soup — complete with teeny, tiny veal meatballs — would please the most exacting old nonna. But he doesn't hesitate to upgrade a classic preparation such as carpaccio with the addition of microgreens and black truffle vinaigrette ($12) or to fill his ravioli with lobster and float them in a saffron champagne broth ($22).It's particularly relaxing and pleasant to eat here. Music and lights are soft. Chairs are comfortable. Service is excellent without being intrusive or fawning, paced for efficiency but never rushed. Staff are there when you need them, invisible when you don't. They know when it's time to replace used silver, deliver a sharper knife  or fill a water glass. Yet the price tag for all this is surprisingly reasonable — another thing I found very attractive.But if I had to say exactly what ignited my infatuation, it would be my initial encounter with the wine guy. I was poring over the all-Italian list trying to find some inexpensive gem when he came over and offered to help. He asked a few questions and quickly got a bead on what I like and what I was willing to spend. Then he steered me to a terrific wine find — a $33 estate bottled 2003 Ambra Carmignano, a smooth, rich red I'd never encountered from a region northwest of Florence. 

I found out later that my likable, laid-back adviser was James Fink. He and Fisher own the place with Little Italy restaurateur Fabio Salerno. Unlike many a pretentious sommelier I've run across, Fink has a knack for sharing what he knows about wine — which is a lot — in a way that doesn't leave you feeling ignorant. It's more like a tip from a friend. He can describe everything he carries because he's tasted the entire list, and typically charges only $10 to $15 above retail, reason enough to order a second bottle.

My budding relationship with Lago blossomed dish by dish. Nightly specials provide variety and surprise, including the occasional higher-end option such as a long-bone veal chop ($37), pistachio-crusted grouper ($26) or filet mignon ($30), but the regular menu stole my heart. It's got a Northern Italian focus and a manageable number of choices. I've eaten my way through a sizable sampling and can tell you there's plenty to like here.   

One order of exceptionally tender calamari offers two distinctive and delicious taste experiences. Half of the appetizer portion ($9) features squid sautéed with oven-roasted tomatoes and basil, the other is lightly breaded, fried and paired with a lemon basil aioli. 

The eggplant terrine, with its layers of buffalo mozzarella, roasted red peppers and the concentrated flavor of oven-roasted tomatoes, looks good and tastes even better ($8). The artichoke tart ($8) has a flaky pastry crust and savory goat cheese and herb filling so tasty that it would be unconscionable to leave even a single crumb on the plate — so I didn't. The mushroom pizza, a hand-shaped rectangle of crisp-on-the-outside, chewy-on-the-inside dough, topped with mild Port-Salut cheese, Parmesan, sweet caramelized cipollini onions and a leek-mushroom sauce, got the same treatment ($10). To go with it, try a salad of Cabernet-poached pears and Bibb lettuce dotted with candied walnuts and bits of Gorgonzola ($6). 

When I told Fisher his gnocchi is irresistible, he was clearly pleased. It took him two weeks to perfect the recipe. He even shared his secret, but I'm not giving it away ... at least not for free. Besides, why try his trick at home when it's so much easier to let him do all the work? His are light and fluffy as a feather pillow, and he dresses up these darling little dumplings with lobster, truffle, sweet corn, basil and roasted tomatoes ($19). 

A native of New England, Fisher has a soft spot for lobster and all things fishy. No surprise then that he's partial to his Chilean sea bass with roasted red pepper and lobster cognac sauce ($27). This predilection for all the ocean has to offer also shows up in a Seafood Feast of spaghettini, shrimp, clams, scallops and whitefish in fresh marinara ($21).  

I know it takes some significant time to form tortelloni, but it took me hardly any to make Fisher's veal-stuffed version disappear. Classically prepared with fresh peas and a Parmigiana and prosciutto cream sauce ($17), this isn't a breakthrough dish but it is truly satisfying. The same can be said of an escarole side, a deftly done sauté that hangs onto the green's distinctive flavor and uses tomatoes, onions and garlic to add even more nuance ($5). 

The kitchen's interpretation of veal scaloppine ($22) includes shrimp, leeks, wild mushrooms and an intriguing herb note that turned out to be sage. I also liked the tangy lemon parsley chicken. Green Castelvetrano olives and a caper pan sauce give it a wonderful, almost briny edge. 

Like the pasta, desserts are made in house. A forkful of the olive oil cake, two small yellow layers separated by fig-strawberry compote, plus a dab of the accompanying vanilla goat cheese ice cream ($6) swept me off my feet. But when I tasted my companion's tiramisu with Limoncello ($6), my affections shifted. Luckily I didn't have to choose between the two. What can I say? I'm a culinary hussy, shamelessly promiscuous when it comes to good food. 

The space retains much of the lovely Arts and Crafts detailing put in place by the former tenant. The only jarring note is the addition of some scenic murals and fake brick. There's not a bad table in the house, which includes a 65-seat front room with visual access to the kitchen and a more secluded back dining area for 60 in the attached carriage house. 

By now, it's clear I have a thing for Lago. But I'm not the possessive or jealous type. So go ahead. Make your move. And get your own relationship going with this easy-to-love Tremont spot.

Lago, 2221 Professor Ave., Cleveland, (216) 344-0547. Hours: Tue-Thu 5 - 10:30 p.m., Fri-Sat 5 - 11:30 p.m., Sun 5 - 9 p.m. All major credit cards accepted.

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