The red neon sign out front of this Highlands landmark isn’t retro, it’s real. It takes us right back to the ’60s, still luring us in to Lentini’s “Little Italy” just as it did when it opened 45 years ago when JFK was president, Elvis was King and girls wore beehive hairdos and poodle skirts.
When the last Lentini (“Sonny”) retired in 2001, a partnership with a Vietnamese entrepreneur followed and we got banh mi and pho alongside lasagna and pizza. This strange experiment didn’t last long. Lentini’s closed, reopened under new management in 2003, then closed again. New owners tried again and promptly went bankrupt. Now it’s ba-aa-ack for a third try, or is it a fourth?
This time, though, the signs look good. Based only on word of mouth and glowing reports from foodies on the LouisvilleHotBytes restaurant forum, the new, new, new Lentini’s is already drawing crowds.
The new owners have transformed the place with well-made, authentic Italian fare and simple physical alterations. They took out the wall that used to separate the dining room bar and pulled down the fustian old velvet curtains, exposing large windows topped with attractive stained glass arches.
Around the corner, the L-shaped room has shrunk, apparently to make room for an enlarged kitchen to produce the new owners’ expanded Northern Italian menu. Walls are painted a deep tomato-paste color, set off with cafe-au-lait trim. The massive old crystal chandeliers remain. Well-spaced tables are draped in white and furnished with sunny yellow cloth napkins and silver votive candle lamps with frosted glass shades. Comfortable tall wooden chairs with black leather-look seats and backs invite diners to stay a while.
The oversized spiral-bound menu is so full of options it takes a while to make your picks. Fifteen starters range from $6 (for a garden salad) to $15 for carpaccio di salmone affumicata (that’s “smoked salmon” to you). Besides the familiar antipasti, you’ll find exotica like polipo con ananas ($12), sautéed octopus with a side of pineapple. Soups range from $4 to $10.
In a serious Italian meal, you’ll follow an antipasto with a bowl of pasta, gnocchi or rice, then move on to the secondi (“second,” or main course); and Lentini’s menu is arranged that way, too. There’s gnocchi di patate (potato dumplings) in gnocchi alla bolognese and gnocchi erbe e verdura ($11). Pastas — spaghetti, tagliatelle, penne, cannelloni — bear traditional sauces including bolognese, carbonara, puttanesca and vognole. The menu lists risottos, too, although I’ve got an authenticity bone to pick there … see below.
A long list of “secondi” include vitello (veal), manzo (beef), alla griglia (from the grill) and pesce, ranging in price from $13 (for chicken cacciatore) to $24 (for grilled lamb chops).
And yes, there’s pizza, good-size rounds in the thin, crisp Neapolitan style, starting at $8 for a classic Margherita, a tomato, mozzarella and basil pie. Several dozen wines are available, mostly from the United States or Italy, most in the $20 range per bottle and many available by the glass for $5 to $12.
A complimentary bite of bruschetta kicked off our meal: focaccia, toasted crisp, topped with chopped herbs, a wash of olive oil and a few tomato dice. Then came the fresh, warm focaccia slices in a napkin-lined bowl.
Our insalata di mare fredda appetizer (cold seafood salad, $12) was a generous mound of chilled, fresh squid rings and tentacly bits, bite-size pieces of octopus and a couple of large, sweet shrimp dressed in a light olive oil and garlic vinaigrette atop crisp romaine bits, beautifully presented with orange and lemon slices.
The tris di pasta sampler ($18) brought us three pastas in equal portions, arranged side by side on a white oval serving dish: wide fresh-made tagliatelle in a light cream sauce with portobello mushroom slices; a square of lasagna, thin and dense, and risotto con asparagi, white long-grain rice with inch-long bites of fresh asparagus. Not a traditional creamy risotto, but a tasty rice dish nonetheless.
We love osso buco, particularly the bianco version, which is rare in restaurants, so we were excited to see nobino di vitello alla contadina on the menu for $15. It was described as “veal shank sautéed with onions, pine nuts and garlic in a white-wine sauce.” But when the dish arrived, the shank had been replaced by a veal chop, without explanation or announcement. We dispatched the server to inquire; she reported that the chef said they didn’t have any shanks today, so he substituted a chop. “It’s the same thing,” she said he told her. Umm … no. No, Chef, it’s not.
That’s a serious service lapse: If you don’t have a critical ingredient in the kitchen, send out the server to explain and to ask whether the diner would rather select another menu item. Yes, it was a fine chop; tender, pink, with creamy, pine-nut studded sauce. And the grilled veggies were first-rate — a Belgian endive, slices of eggplant, slabs of red, yellow and green bell pepper, a tomato topped with bread crumbs, some bitter radicchio and a round of summer squash — so we got over it. Sort of. They still should have asked us, though.
Desserts include tiramisu, cheesecake and other good things. We chose something the server called milk cake and the bill described as torta al latte ($5). It was a small cube of dense white cake topped with a thick blanket of soft, just-whipped cream.
Decaf ($2) was fine, served in the tall glass mugs that remain a Lentini’s tradition. My single espresso ($2) looked great, bearing a properly foamy golden crema, but it tasted burnt.
Dinner for two came to $79.24 plus a 20-percent tip to bring the total up to $96, about par for a nice dinner in a fancy spot on Bardstown Road, although we did hold the toll down a bit with a shared appetizer and dessert and one of the more modest wines on the list.
It’s great to have Lentini’s back. Again.
1543 Bardstown Road
Rating: 85 points
HEARD ON THE STREET
We’re told that Dean Corbett, the genial host at Equus and Jack’s in St. Matthews for many years, is working out plans for a stylish new spot in the lovely, 150-year-old farmhouse out front of the new Costco in the sprawling Brownsboro Crossing center at KY 22 and the Snyder. Watch the Clifton space recently vacated by Danielle’s, too … if reports we’re hearing come to pass, there’ll be exciting dining news in that location soon. Finally, also in Clifton at 2244 Frankfort Ave., keep an eye out for Basa Modern Vietnamese, an upscale Asian dining room with “fusion” touches.
Bowling for Buddies
Vernon Lanes, 1575 Story Ave. in Butchertown, will host a four-day Super Bowlathon to benefit Baptist Hospital East Foundation’s “Maria Long (Buddies for Life) Fund,” which assists children in the Pediatrics Unit at Baptist East Hospital and their families. The Vernon is said to be the third-oldest bowling alley in the country, so Super Bowlathon is offering old-time bowling food favorites at old-time prices: 12-inch, one-topping pizzas for $1 on Wednesday; $1 cheeseburgers on Thursday; $1 hot dogs and brats on Friday; and $1 fish, chicken or chicken-salad sandwiches on Saturday. Super Bowlathon is open to the public from noon until midnight, Jan. 30-Feb. 3, except between 6 and 9 p.m. on Feb. 2. Hit The Vernon for eight lanes of bowling fun, good grub for a buck and to support a caring cause. Call Cathy or Jack at 584-8460 for further info or to reserve your lane.
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