When the weather warms, I know where I want to sit and sip pinot noir: The patio of Al Lago Ristorante, a lake-view restaurant with a rich and flavorful Southern Italian menu brushed broadly with Northwest ingredients.
The design of the cavernous restaurant might not make much use of the Lake Tapps view, but the stylish and warm décor in autumnal hues of sage and copper and cushy, deep booths near the flickering rock fireplace do entice on true Northwest days.
The come-as-you-are relaxed vibe married with an enjoyable atmosphere makes Al Lago a restaurant for family celebrations, anniversaries, romantic dates and pre-prom festivities alike.
George Filiss opened the restaurant in November 2004 with a silent partner, his father-in-law, Giuseppe “Peppe” Nappo, who has operated Verrazanos Italian restaurant in Federal Way since 1995.
Like Verrazanos, Al Lago draws influence from the region where Nappo was raised: Pozzuoli, Naples.
“We use in-season and local in our menu,” said Filiss.
Northwest seafood is well-represented with salmon, clams and scallops.
“We definitely integrate some Northwest infusion into the menu,” Filiss said. “We’re really trying to keep it in the region, the same as you do in Naples.”
The rest of the menu is a mix of pizzas, pastas and steaks with Italian tweaks and Northwest flourishes. Entrees fall in the $17-$20 range.
The menu is executed by chef Travis Johnson, a 1992 Culinary Institute of America graduate who cooked his way around Brooklyn before relocating to the Northwest in 1996 with his sister to be closer to their brother stationed at Fort Lewis.
He previously cooked at the Eastside’s Bellevue Club, Six Degrees, and Third Floor Fish Club before heading south to Auguri in Auburn. He’s cooked at Al Lago since 2005.
During my first of three anonymous visits, I settled in on a chilly February night.
The warmth of the restaurant and friendly service sucked me in, but the rest of the night left me cold. The kitchen appeared stressed – a possible consequence of a pre-Valentine’s day weekend booked to the max?
I could sympathize, but as a diner spending a good chunk of change for dinner, I wanted to be pleased, even if it was a busy holiday weekend. I left disappointed.
Things started fine with a basket of pillowy peasant bread – made daily in house by Johnson and crew – and piquant house-made sundried tomato butter. But trouble brewed in the appetizer course with a garnish of lettuce missing from one of two soggy-bottomed duck confit sliders ($11.99, but it’s no longer on the menu). A kitchen that misses garnish on one of two items on a single plate? Ouch. Someone wasn’t paying attention. Bruschetta ($8.99) with kalamata olives and basil tomato compote tasted hearty, but that plate and the others sat for an irritatingly long time as we waited, and waited, and waited, for our entrees.
When our entrees finally arrived, more disappointment.
Fettuccini di mare ($23.99) brimmed with prawns, bay scallops and clams, but tasted too heavily of smoked salmon. A soupy, thin sherry cream alfredo sauce lacked enough body to cling to the slippery, overcooked pasta. Maille al Limone ($17.99) really disappointed, a broken white wine lemon caper sauce congealed around dry, leathery and nearly inedible pork medallions. The dish was such a mess, I complained, which is beyond the protocol of how I normally conduct reviews (I usually save my complaints for print), but I wanted to see how the restaurant responded to something so disastrous.
To their credit, they removed the dish from the bill, apologized profusely and asked if I wanted the dish remade (I declined). Score one for service, zero for the kitchen.
Dinner improved dramatically but briefly with exceptionally well-priced grilled leg of lamb ($18.99) that came with a fan of six slices of fork-tender lamb, simply marinated in rosemary, thyme, garlic and oil. A reduction sauce made from pan drippings from the lamb and fortified with demi-glace and a dash of mint syrup made an agreeably rich companion for buttery soft, cheesy polenta and crisp carrots and broccoli.
Our spirits were lifted by the lamb, but then dashed when the “warm” turtle brownie ($7.95) arrived cold, overcooked and too hard to cut. The promised warm caramel and chocolate sauces also arrived cold. We gave up with a shrug.
While an average diner might not have returned after such an experience, reviewers who follow industry standards always do. So I returned on a less busy Sunday evening a few weeks later.
Once again, the experience was mixed. A margherita pizza ($10.99) was doughy and swimming in cheese, but doused with a wonderfully rich and brightly flavored tomato sauce. Banker’s Best pizza ($14.99) was too doughy, and the acrid flavor of burned chicken pieces overwhelmed the caramelized onions, sundried tomatoes and garlic and olive oil sauce. Servers prepping for a busy party were friendly but largely ignored our group.
With two mixed visits, I again applied restaurant reviewing industry standards, which suggest a third visit, so return I did. And, finally, I found a restaurant that soared more than flopped. Would a regular diner be that patient for a third try? I doubt it.
An appetizer of grilled sea scallops ($11.99) tasted creamy and delicious, simply seasoned and grilled exactly medium rare, served with a tangle of fresh sautéed spinach drenched with a sharp and delicious sundried tomato-infused oil. A daily special of tri tip ($21.95) showcased the beefy prowess of that cut of meat when paired with tart and sweet balsamic-braised onions that pooled with a rich and creamy blue cheese sauce around a mound of wickedly good mashed red potatoes.
Lasagna ($15.99) could have been cooked a few minutes longer, but the decadent, rich, basil-punched tomato sauce laid the foundation for an astoundingly good yet simple cheese lasagna loaded with mozzarella and romano.
That terrible turtle brownie experience faded to a distant bad memory thanks to a house-made New York cheesecake ($6.95) that was creamy rich and lightly tweaked with maple on a crispy almond biscotti crust and served with a blueberry reduction sauce. It was so luscious, it almost made up for the pork. Almost.
Al Lago Ristorante Italiano
Where: 3110 Sumner Tapps Highway E.
Hours: 3-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 3-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 3-9 p.m. Sunday. Happy hour daily 3-6 p.m. and 9 p.m.-close. The restaurant will begin serving lunch Monday-Saturday after Memorial Day. Call for details.
Information: 253-863-8636, www.allagoristorante.com