Walking into the recently opened Il Lago in Highlands is a bit surreal. This venerable building was the home of the incomparable Bay Ave. Trattoria from 2005 until Super Storm Sandy rendered it unusable in 2012. Sadly, the much loved chef of that popular establishment, Joe Romanowski, passed away the following year, and the building sat untouched and vacant until Michael D’Angelo entered the picture.
The former chef/owner of Citrico’s in Bradley Beach and other Italian eateries, he set out to reclaim the structure and create his vision for this site. The original high tin ceiling, exposed masonry walls, new floor, expansive granite service counter, and artful lighting, create a warm, rustic, Italian countryside ambience that feels new and intimate, but at the same time, as if it has been there for decades. On our recent Friday night visit, Billy Brown, a charismatic area singer, was in residence, doing classic Elvis, Miracles and Mar vin Gaye tunes, as he strolled from table to table. It was much fun!
The menu offerings break no new ground, but represent classic Italian dishes, well prepared, and done with fresh ingredients, deftly presented in a home-style manner. Mozzarella Carrozza ($11.95), essentially a warm, runny, and very satisfying fried cheese sandwich, was offered with a choice of either a marinara sauce, or caper/anchovy sauce, which our waitperson suggested. Often served with the sauce on the side for dipping, Il Lago’s version is sauced on top.
A generous serving of Insalata Di Mare ($12.95), contained calamari rings and tentacles, shrimp, celery, red onion slivers, and the plumpest mussels I have ever seen, marinated in olive oil and lemon. The mussels were sweet, calamari tender, and the shrimp perfectly cooked, but they were overwhelmed by far too much lemon juice, making the dish very acidic. However, this dish has so much promise that I would try it again.
No issues with balance and harmony in the Cavatelli and Broccoli ($18.95). Plump little cylinders of pleasantly chewy pasta were simply sauced with just enough garlic, good olive oil, a splash of tomato broth and basil; the broccoli florets bite-sized and still a bit crunchy. This was comfort food that delivered the goods in all aspects, and was a favorite dish of the night.
A special of the night, Duo of Boneless Rib Eye Steak and Pork Chop Oreganata ($31.95), was served with roasted fingerling potatoes, and easily enough for two. Both meats were juicy and tender, and cooked exactly as requested, a coating of toasted breadcrumbs and oregano dusted over the top, but if it had been a fight, the KO would have gone to the succulent pork.
I did not expect the pan-seared Red Snapper served over Linguine ($29.95) another special of the night, to be as sweet, juicy, and perfectly fired as it was. This is a delicate fish that more often than not, arrives overcooked and dry. As if this was not enough, the plate was ringed with three more of those fat mussels, and three large, perhaps, overly-so, clams. A very fresh tasting chunky marinara sauce and ideally cooked linguine completed the plating.
Since there is no way to “send back” an off bottle at a BYO, I always carry a couple of spare wines just in case I am disappointed by something I brought. It was a good thing, since both of the whites we opened were off bottles: 2012 Bisson Marea Cinque Terre, a three grape blend of Albarola, Bosco, and Vermentino, was flat, had no nose, and was devoid of fruit; a 2015 Ronchi di Cialla Ribolla Gialla Colli Orientali del Friuli was high in acid, also low in fruit, and out of balance. Happily, not so the red: a 2014 Burlotto Barbera d’ Alba with typical rich, dark cherry fruit, anise, and a pleasant crispness, making an ideal pairing for the marinara sauce and meats.
When the kitchen is not busy, the very personable Chef Mike “works” the dining room, visiting each table to ensure that everyone is happy and enjoying their meals.
Although the food is quite good already, Il Lago is fairly new, and they are still refining the menu and tweaking some dishes, so it’s a good bet that with time the food will get even better as they hit their stride. Although the chef makes a number of desserts in-house, none were available the night of our visit, so we forewent a sweet finale. The warm, homey feel of both the room and the food, with the bonus of live music on the weekends, makes this a solid neighborhood and destination restaurant, positioned to carry on some of the culinary endeavors of its predecessor, as well as paying homage to the long-standing building, which has truly weathered the storm.
122 Bay Ave., Highlands
Bob Sacks, longtime food and wine buff, reviews restaurants in this bimonthly column. Read his restaurant reviews here.
This article was first published in the Feb. 23-March 2, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.
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