When Bruce Myers and Tom Havrish opened the doors to Lugano for the first time, their restaurant already had a strong following. For several years leading up to that day in late January, the partners had operated the restaurant as a Biaggi’s. They decided to go independent when it became apparent that the Midwestern chain of Italian restaurants had abandoned its original plans to expand into the Southeast.
The parting of ways must have been amicable, because the partners were able to keep the overwhelming majority of the Biaggi’s dishes that had won them that strong following.
Not that they didn’t have a few ideas of their own.
Of course, they didn’t want to fix what wasn’t broken. To that end, Myers (the managing partner who oversees the front of the house) preserved Biaggi’s dining room intact, from barrel-vaulted ceiling to hardwood floor. Yards of cherry-stained woodwork and dimpled glass partition panels between the dining room and bar set the backdrop for tables draped in paper over white linens, creating a mood that suggests opulence without scaring off families with small children.
Chef Havrish was excited about being freed from the constraints of a corporate chain menu, but he knew he needed to proceed cautiously. “We didn’t want to lose the customers who had been loyal to us,” he says, noting that his initial changes were limited to dropping a handful of less popular dishes.
Biaggi’s best-selling ziti al forno in a lobster cream sauce is still on offer, along with some three dozen other carryovers covering the mostly traditional Italian and Italian-American spectrum from chicken Marsala to garlic shrimp oreganata. Fans of spaghetti and Sicilian meatballs (well-seasoned golf ball-size orbs of beef, veal, pork and Italian sausage, according to our server) can still get their fix. Count me among their number.
Tweaking old favorites
I can also easily imagine returning on a regular basis for a big starter bowl of mussels in a light tomato-flecked garlic broth. Jumbo lump crab cakes, too, with the qualification that the ones I ordered could have benefited from a more substantial crust.
So could the pizza. Resembling a flatbread more than a pizza, the thin oval crust of Biaggi’s – er, Lugano’s individual pizza has an odd texture that’s somehow bready, flaky and limp at the same time. As it happens, chef Havrish isn’t satisfied with the pizza crust, either. He’s working on a different recipe, which will likely take on a more traditional circular shape.
The chef had already tweaked the recipe for fried calamari by the time I got a chance to sample it. I’d never tried the previous version, but I can give an enthusiastic thumbs-up to the new one, which features an exemplary tempura batter and two dips: classic warm marinara and a zesty Italian salsa of pepperoncini, capers, tomatoes and garlic.
Havrish has so far limited himself to this sort of fine-tuning of the regular menu. It’s the supplemental list of chef’s features where he gets to spread his culinary wings. The list changes every month or so, allowing him to respond to the changing seasons and to try out new ideas. Here is where Havrish is free to color outside the lines with, say, a fresh strawberry and spinach salad with candied walnuts and a sherry mustard vinaigrette. Or grilled Italian meatloaf served over fried parmesan polenta cakes and iron-seared beefsteak tomatoes.
The variety broadens the restaurant’s appeal, naturally, as well as offering a change of pace for returning regulars. Fans of the mussels in garlic broth might want to switch it up a bit this month and try the mussels in saffron cream. Also on the current list, herb-marinated swordfish drizzled with a citrus vinaigrette is a tempting warm weather alternative to the usual seared mahi with white truffle mashed potatoes.
The best of these special offerings may earn a place on the regular menu. Last month’s crab and wild mushroom bruschetta, for one, just got promoted to permanent status. Deservedly so. I’m guessing that’s also how the Tuscan shrimp and “grits” (rendered as a creamy parmesan basil polenta, punctuated with Italian sausage and cappicola) found its way onto the menu.
Kitchen miscues are relatively infrequent and generally minor. Besides the pizza, the only serious stumble I encountered was a pork chop that was both over-seasoned and overcooked.
Fortunately, that night I found sweet consolation in Bomboloni. The menu description of “Italian donuts” doesn’t do justice to this house-made creation that turns out to be wedges of white chocolate bread pudding deep-fried to order and dusted in cinnamon sugar. Drizzled with homemade caramel rum sauce and a scoop of vanilla ice cream, it will easily satisfy two of the most sugar-addicted among us. Turns out Bomboloni is another Biaggi’s carryover.
And it’s a good bet that it’s here to stay.