by LIZZ SCHUMER
THOMAS LOMBARDO AND HIS SON, THOMAS JR., opened what
was then Lombardo’s in the spring of 1975, as an Italian-American restaurant. Starting in the 1990s, Thomas Jr. and wife, Donna, found inspiration in their regular trips to Italy, and the restaurant slowly began
offering more regional Italian dishes. His son, Tommy, returned to Buffalo to partner in the family business in 2012. Today, Chef Michael Obar-ka and the Lombardo family have created an institution that is at once a
paradigm of Italian-American standards and a trip through the old country, all in one.
TOMMY, THERE ARE A LOT OF ITALIAN
RESTAURANTS IN BUFFALO. WHAT’S UNIQUE
ABOUT RISTORANTE LOMBARDO?
I like to say we’re like Dr. Jekyll
and Mr. Hyde because we’ve got a foot
in each cuisine. One of our most popular dishes is our Caesar salad for two,
served tableside, and, while that’s a
holdover from what we used to be,
alongside that, we have our handmade pastas and regional Italian dishes.
We’ve got one of the biggest fine dining
menus in the area, because we like to
offer people options while focusing on
HOW HAVE YOU STAYED RELEVANT FOR
OVER FORTY YEARS?
We’ve done a good job of keeping the
menu fresh. We’ve always been open to
just trying new things. It’s the same story with our decor and wine and cocktail program. There’s not a lot of people
doing the kind of Italian we’re doing.
We’ve done a good enough job of building up our brand so that people know
what they’re getting, although, once a
week or so, we still get people calling
for spaghetti to go.
WHY REGIONAL ITALIAN? WHY NOT STICK
That’s what people love about Italy:
it’s a hodgepodge of cuisines all packed
under one umbrella. It’s extremely
diverse, and there are so many amazing recipes, amazing pasta, amazing
produce. If we were to focus on only
one cuisine, that would be our downfall. The restaurant is bigger than any
one person’s intentions. It dictates to us
what it needs to be. It really has a life
of its own.
MIKE, YOU SAID YOUR ORECCHIETTE WITH
CAULIFLOWER SUMS UP ITALIAN CUISINE.
TELL ME ABOUT THAT.
We make a simple flour and
water dough that has a good bite to
it, as opposed to our egg dough—
used to make our stuffed pastas and
tagliatelle—which has a softer, more
inviting texture. We are essentially taking something totally humble, cauliflower, and luring out the flavor by
caramelizing it in a bit of butter that
we let brown. All it is, is butter, pasta,
cauliflower, shallots, chili flakes, salt-packed capers, lemon zest, and seasoned bread crumbs. Even the bread
crumbs are a move from the Cucina
Povera. Poor folks didn’t have money to
buy cheese, so they would season and
toast bread crumbs for a little pick-me-up in texture and flavor. It doesn’t hurt
that a totally satisfying bowl of pasta is
vegetarian, and can be turned vegan by
using some buttery olive oil in place of
the actual butter.
Novelist Lizz Schumer is a journalism
professor at Canisius.