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 sautÃ©ed 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 sautÃ© 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.