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After too many days stuck inside because of arctic temps and icy roads, I craved conversation and dinner that I didn't have to make myself. I found exactly what I needed at Enzo & Lucia Ristorante and Cafe.
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Enzo & Lucia Ristorante and Cafe343 Old McHenry Road, Long Grove
(847) 478-8825, enzoandlucia.com
Setting: Charmingly updated Victorian-style house
Entrees: $12.95 to $38.95
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday
Located in a Victorian-style home in downtown Long Grove, the restaurant suffered a kitchen fire last summer and was shuttered for several months. After spending some $75,000 to redo the kitchen and renovate the dining rooms, the Italian eatery reopened late in 2013.
Evidently, my girlfriends and I weren't the only ones seeking contact with the outside world; tables in the main dining room were full and the bar buzzed with people peeling out of heavy coats and settling in to wait. I was starting to wonder how they would honor our 7 p.m. reservation when we were told to follow the host back around the bar and down the stairs.
The lower level is usually reserved for banquets and private parties, but on busy nights picks up the overflow. It's freshly painted in warm colors, but is still pretty dim and sparse and I couldn't help but feel like we'd been relegated to the kids table at a family party. A little extra attention to the walls and windows could go a long way in making diners feel like they're not eating in the basement.
Our locale also seemed to contribute to the slow start in getting our orders in; at one point our server appeared almost out of breath from all the stair work. So we talked slow to give him a chance to recover and once our wines were on the table (there's a slim but reasonably priced selection of wines by the glass) the meal proceeded at a comfortable pace.
Meals at Enzo & Lucia (named for owners Enzo and Lucia Cavallino, who run the nearly 12-year-old spot with cousin Glenn Cardella) start with a basket of warmed bread and the restaurant's signature garlic relish. I'm not sure relish is really the right word ... chunks of garlic and herbs mingle in olive oil and need to be spooned, rather than spread, onto the bread. A few bites of this pungent stuff (and that's pungent in a good way) certainly opens the passages and primes the stomach for what lies ahead.
The menu is quite traditional with an expansive selection of appetizers, pasta, seafood, veal, chicken and steaks. You'll find fried calamari, sauteed mussels and bruschetta among the appetizer offerings. We opted for the daily special stuffed eggplant. We expected eggplant to be the star of the dish, but really it was more about the meatball-like veal filling. Finished with a nice marinara, it was tasty even if not quite what we anticipated.
If you order the Cesar salad, consider sprinkling some of that garlic stuff over the romaine leaves. Without it, the salad is just ho-hum.
On the other hand, Lucia's Salad, a blend of mixed greens, red onions and green olives, is simply marvelous. The bright vinaigrette and mild gorgonzola were just the pickup my palette needed after a week of heavy chili and soups.
When it comes to meatless specialties, the Spaghetti Spinach Ricotta, chock full of fresh spinach and amply peppered with cheese and tossed with garlic and olive oil, is light and satisfying. The dish works as a vegetarian entree, or as a segue to a meat course.
Each day the kitchen cooks up specials and two caught our eye the other night. The risotto of the day was a hearty combination of chicken and artichokes. It was nicely flavored with a wonderful creamy texture and studded with bites of tender artichoke, yet not the prettiest plate on the table. A bit of chopped parsley or sprinkle of fresh-shaved parmesan and the dish would have been camera ready.
The branzino special was a sight to behold with hot-out-of-the-oven cherry tomatoes bursting with color and flavor surrounding the sea bass fillet. Our server warned me about the possibility of bones in the fillet, but that didn't sufficiently prepare me for the handful of tiny spikes I picked from my mouth. When he asked, I told him our disappointment and he relayed the story of an upstairs diner who sent the dish back to the kitchen to be re-deboned not once, but twice. Makes me think the kitchen needs a more thorough fish guy, or it needs to rethink the flavorful dish with a different variety of fish.
Two of the restaurant's desserts -- tiramisu and cannoli -- are made in house so we went straight for the tiramisu. The cake wasn't overly drenched or spiked and the cream topping was heavenly. As we were enjoying the dessert -- one portion is certainly shareable -- our server arrived with three shots of limoncello, a peace offering of sorts for the bone debacle. It was just what we needed to warm us up before we headed back into the polar air.
• Restaurants are based on one anonymous visit. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.