979 Harbor View Road, James Island
Prices: Moderate ($12-$19)
Serving Lunch, Dinner, Sunday Brunch
The prime rib comes in three different sizes. There are five different preparations of spaghetti. The meatloaf is made with veal. And if the ’80s are cool, then Lombardi’s, the newest addition to the Harbor View Road dining scene, ranks next to asymmetrical perms and parachute pants. At the very least, the four-foot-tall wine glass full of custom matchbooks just inside the front door speaks to a bygone era. Ask around a bit, and you’ll find two camps that seem to have emerged to pass judgment on the place.
Some see the standard Italian-American cliché — plates of overwrought red-sauces, saltimbocca, and tiramisu, but without the red-checked tablecloths and a candle-in-the-Chianti bottle at every table — while those in the opposite camp pack the place with conviviality on a typical night. These regular customers are satisfied that a guy named Vinny Lombardi, who devotes a chunk of menu space to tracing his lineage back to a seaside village just outside of Naples, is fulfilling a lifelong dream built on the pride of his heritage. I fall into the latter group, because Vinny Lombardi is the real deal.
You will know this as soon as you step through the door. There is a certain Reagan-era style to the décor. A long banquette runs unceremoniously along the starboard wall, but the open kitchen on the other side of the room represents the most innovative asset of the whole layout — as it should. You don’t come here for molecular marvels or the intricacies of haute cuisine. At Lombardi’s the red sauce is thick, the pasta fresh, and the clichés as authentic as a mob hit on Valentine’s Day.
The first entry on the kid’s menu, spaghetti and meatballs, costs $4. So does the New York cheesecake. In between that lies a menu overflowing with Italian-American specialties, a little slice of Brooklyn, but with half the machismo.
Prices are reasonable. Chicken dishes go for 15 or 16 bucks, with the usual suspects in the lineup: saltimbocca, marsala, parmesan, piccata — the stuff Italian grandmas are most loved for. Veal follows suit. Eighteen or 19 dollars gets you a thinly-pounded cutlet, adeptly sauced and fairly presented — that is, unceremoniously slapped down with a big bowl of fresh spaghetti and red sauce; the plates fill a table for two with nary an inch to spare. I went for a whole flounder special, well over 20 bucks, but lightly pan fried and swimming in butter and lemon and those tiny little capers that explode like salty pop rocks in the mouth.
Pasta is the best value here. I suggest the orecchiette ($15), which come al dente, wallowing in oil primed with a little red chili heat and a hit of anise from the sliced Italian sausages that mingle among those little ears. Wilted rapini weaves its way into the crowd, and a little grated cheese brings it all together. But the spaghetti with oil, garlic, and chilies ($10) puts on a good show too, and the bolognese ($12) is cheap enough to deserve some respect, even if it’s not the best version to ever grace the town.
There are perfectly cooked mussels ($9), light and crispy calamari ($8), and soups worth eating — from minestrone to a thick, delicious Italian wedding soup, full of tender little sausage meatballs ($6).
Add to that a well-priced wine list and Lombardi’s scores pretty good marks. It certainly has some problems worth addressing: the bread sucks (a cardinal sin), and you shouldn’t have to ask for it. I’m still trying to figure out what that little plate on the left was for if not a fresh Italian roll. The service, despite being some of the friendliest in town, can be uneven on a busy night, and the greatest deal in wine can always be ruined when served too warm.
The ultimate test of a restaurant is not how it stacks up to the best food in town, but how it fulfills the promise it makes to the dining public. Too often, a critic must point out when the image doesn’t match reality. Ultimately, I think Lombardi’s delivers on its promise. And since I don’t have a full-blooded Italian grandma of my own, I’ll be happy to head here to get my fill of Vinny’s Italian-American classics.