The sign on North Guadalupe Street says “Pizzeria da Lino” and I’ve passed it a hundred or a thousand times without guessing that Lino’s serves more than pizza.
In fact, this small, intimate and cozy place is a trattoria – an informal Italian eatery serving pizza and pasta, certainly, but more besides. It’s a wonderfully friendly place and music often comes with dinner. We spent two memorable evenings there recently and will be returning.
Appetizers, or first courses, include a variety of salads and a bruschetta, plus a few more interesting and ambitious selections like thin-sliced beef carpaccio and a mushroom “tower.” Secondi include a panoply of pasta, but also cioppino and stuffed lamb. Pizza of course – a dozen choices – just rounds out the menu.
We started with the bruschetta ($8), tastily garnished with arugula, fresh tomatoes and a dash of chopped onion, laced with fresh basil and garlic, and a very nice balsamic vinegar. It was very good but, if you plan to order pizza also, best skip this option. We expected an underpinning of focaccia, the tender slab-like version of Italian bread. Instead, the base was a pizza dough, crackly and nicely flavored by the smoke of Lino’s wood-fired pizza oven.
We also tried the torre di portobello ($11), a delicious surprise. A plump, huge portobello mushroom had been sliced horizontally and stacked with fresh, tender buffalo mozzarella and roasted tomato slices, all nicely tied together with basil pesto. It was a very tasty morsel that easily provided more than a few bites for everybody at our table of four.
The pizza enthusiast ordered Lino’s restrained and delicious simple tomato-sauce pie laced with pepperoni ($11.50). More of that slightly smoky and crunchy crust, a dab of tomato and very high-quality spicy sausage.
Cioppino ($19) was a must-try for another of us and Lino’s version didn’t disappoint. The broth was a garlicky and light tomato-and-white-wine creation, and absolutely laden with clams, mussels, calamari and shrimp. It more than met expectations and there was enough crusty-but-soft Italian bread to sop up every bit.
The night’s special was chicken parmeggiano ($17.85) and my other guest opted for that. It too defied expectations; this dish can be heavy and lackluster, but Lino’s serves up a lighter, far more tender version that we all praised.
The chicken breast was succulently tender (not overcooked, in other words). And there was just enough Parmesan cheese to live up to the name, but not so much that the dish was overly rich or cheese-y.
I chose the stuffed lamb ($18) from the regular menu and was very happy. Spinach and bread crumbs were wrapped in generous slice of lamb and braised to perfection. The accompanying gravy was savory. I loved the Parmesan risotto – flavorful enough to stand up to the lamb, rich with cheese. A bowl of that and a salad would make a simple but wonderful supper.
A handful of diced veggies, ranging from eggplant to pepper and zucchini, filled out the plate. And, yes, there was enough of everything left for lunch the next day.
We were surrounded by take-out containers by the end of the meal but, in the interests of a complete review, we did order dessert ($6.50), although one was all we could manage. That was tiramisu – not the most decadent version of this coffee-and-cake dessert we’ve had in town, but good nonetheless. Interestingly, on a return visit Christmas Eve, the tiramisu had been jazzed up: more coffee, more chocolate – excellent.
For the record, the waiter suggested cannoli for dessert instead and, when we came back on Christmas Eve, we took him up on the tip. If you don’t come from one of the Italian-American capitals in our country (Cincinnati, Columbus, New York and maybe San Francisco), this is not a familiar treat. But Lino’s version lived up to the legend: deliciously liquored-up whipped cream, crunchy pastry rolls, a little chocolate.
By the way, the Christmas Eve special of flatiron steak and roasted garlic mashed potatoes was superb, as was the fettucine Sophia Loren ($13), a menu standard that Lino’s claims as its own. Think of it as cioppino with pasta added – a light dried-tomato cream sauce, plenty of shrimp, a little spinach. Perfection! This may become a favorite on our return visits.
Among the best things about Lino’s is the trattoria atmosphere, complete with accordion music. Ron Romanovsky holds forth Thursday through the weekend evenings in virtuoso style. From his spangled black Bulgari accordion pours forth an unlikely melange of French favorites like “La vie en rose,” some Broadway tunes, American popular classics, and a little Bach and the Beatles thrown in. It’s wonderful. Needless to say, on Christmas Eve, we got carols, too, deftly chosen and not too many.
Romanovsky is one excellent reason to visit Lino’s; so too is the food. The service is excellent, too; the atmosphere is warmly cozy and the prices are reasonable. No surprise that this place is almost always crowded and enjoys many regulars. We look forward to summer, when Lino’s also serves lunch on the patio.