Written by: Katie Teer
Lombardi’s Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar is an establishment that has grown up with Seattle’s food scene. Diane Symms opened the original Lombardi’s in Ballard in 1987; it was then known as Lombardi’s Cucina. Symms’ vision was to bring to Seattle authentic Italian food, like the dishes she enjoyed while living abroad for several years as a teenage. “People asked me why on earth I was opening an Italian restaurant in Ballard. They asked me as if it was the craziest thing they’d ever heard of,” Symms said.
Much has changed for both Seattle and Lombardi’s over the years. “Seattle hasn’t always been the food mecca that it is today,” Symms said. “It used to be pretty meat and potatoes. You wouldn’t recognize it as the same city if you lived here thirty years ago.”
Today, Symms manages the restaurant’s two locations—a waterfront location at the Everett marina and another situated about halfway between Bothell and Mill Creek—with Kerri Lonergan-Dreke, her business partner and daughter.Italy, as well as the Washington cask wines, which are available on tap. When I visited, I tried the bruschetta (a helpful reminder: to order authentically, pronounce this with a hard “k” sound, as in “school”) sampler. The toppings are delightful and can be ordered in combination, your choice of olive tapenade, fig and raisin compote, chive goat cheese, angelica delle morte, and traditional tomato. Lombardi’s sources its bread fresh from Essential Baking Company, whose baking also starred in the bread service with roasted garlic and extra virgin olive oil. The bread was rustic and coarse with plentiful pockets of air.
Their enthusiasm for authenticity has taken them to Italy many times, occasionally they have even brought along their staff. Symms can trace Lombardi’s menu items, such as the lasagna and the limoncello, to the Italian seaside cafes and eateries where she first encountered the dishes that inspired them. The lasagna, for example, often surprises customers, who expect the traditional American-style lasagna that drips with cheese, meat, and spinach. At Lombardi’s the lasagna consists of many very fine layers of pasta. “It may not look quite like what you’re expecting, but it has more depth and character, and the flavors are incredible,” Symms said.
This underscores the fact that in addition to the powerhouse women behind Lombardi’s success, it’s the high-quality, well-prepared, authentic Italian dishes that make the restaurant memorable. Lonergan-Dreke recalls word processing the original menu. Though the menu offerings have changed with time (the heavy cream sauces popular in the 80s have been updated with lighter, healthier, vegetable-based sauces, for example) several original recipes, like the tortellini and the paella, remain fixtures. “We’ve become more adventurous over the years,” Lonergan-Dreke said. “Believe it or not, people were resistant to pesto when we first opened. ‘What is this?’ they’d say.”
Executive Chef Matthew Romeo crafts signature, seasonal menus that succeed on presentation, quality, technique, and, most importantly, taste. This spring, the seasonal fresh sheet features a beautiful Beet Carpaccio starter, with baby arugula, goat cheese, and gray salt, as well as the Mahi Mahi Ligurian entrée of grilled fillets topped with a concasse of kumato tomatoes, castelvetrano olives, and capers and served with a spring pea risotto and seasonal vegetables. The menu includes suggested wine pairings culled from the restaurant’s wine cellar, which focuses on labels from both Washington and Italy, as well as the Washington cask wines, which are available on tap.
When I visited, I tried the bruschetta (a helpful reminder: to order authentically, pronounce this with a hard “k” sound, as in “school”) sampler. The toppings are delightful and can be ordered in combination, your choice of olive tapenade, fig and raisin compote, chive goat cheese, angelica delle morte, and traditional tomato. Lombardi’s sources its bread fresh from Essential Baking Company, whose baking also starred in the bread service with roasted garlic and extra virgin olive oil. The bread was rustic and coarse with plentiful pockets of air. This is a key characteristic of a meal at Lombardi’s, which sources its ingredients from Italy and many local Washington suppliers.
My Chicken Marsala arrived to the table cooked to perfection, and it was the kind of meal that had me wishing for less conversation, though I enjoyed it, and more concentrated eating. My dining companions’ plates looked equally appetizing. The Tuscan Meat Pizza, from the Pizza Napoletana section of the menu, was cooked in a hearth stone oven and the crust was enviable, as was the Seafood Panzanella Salad with wild salmon fillet, chilled prawns, and toasted bread, and the Penne Siciliana. Lombardi’s sauces are made from scratch and never sourced from a can, and though pasta plays a starring role in the menu, gluten free options are available to accommodate guests with dietary restrictions.
Though Symms doesn’t show signs of slowing down, she says she expects that she will miss the connection with people when she eventually retires. “Regulars keep coming back because they know you, they know your food, and they expect to see you,” she said. “I really enjoy that part of it, and I suspect I will miss it the most.” Symms and Lonergan-Dreke have established a warm, welcoming, and delicious Italian restaurant, and either location is well worth visiting again and again.