When last I saw John Lombardo, proprietor of Lombardo’s Fine Foods, he was hurrying along the sidewalk outside the windows of his recently expanded Mission Terrace operation — a café now adjoins the catering kitchen — on his way home to … change the baby’s diapers? He had revealed to us his domestic mission, with apologies and having first checked to make sure we were satisfied with our food, and it is some measure of how satisfied we were that I forgot why he said he was rushing forth almost as soon as he’d said why. He vanished with a wave of his hand (the family place is just around the corner), and we waved back before reimmersing ourselves in an evening of home cooking, an orgy of manicotti, macaroni, orzo, and lasagna, all made according to what Lombardo told us were “family recipes.”
Cultural dry rot takes many forms — as we can see just by glancing around us these days — but one of the most insidious of those forms, for me, is the loss of ancient culinary knowledge passed down through generations, until some generation isn’t interested or can’t be bothered, and the chain breaks, the knowledge is lost, people end up ordering boxed pizza or microwaving canned soup in desperation. Some family recipes do get written down, and written recipes are better than nothing, but most of them don’t get written down. There is no better way to learn to cook, moreover, than by watching someone who knows what she or he is doing. Cooking is a sensual experience — it requires the engagement of the senses, all of them — and even the best written recipe can never be much more than a ghostly guide by comparison.
Who taught Lombardo how to cook? He graduated from the California Culinary Academy and has been a professional caterer for more than 20 years, so there we have at least two nonfamilial elements of the answer. But as my companion and I stood at the glass case, pointing at this and that with a question or two, Lombardo’s answers tended to include the phrase “family recipe” with some frequency. An orzo salad ($4), for instance, with julienne red bell pepper, shreds of mint, and crumblings of sheep-milk feta cheese folded into the ricelike pasta, was a family recipe. So was manicotti ($6.50), flaps of pasta like pig’s ears stuffed with herbed ricotta cheese and bathed in a garlicky marinara sauce decorated with basil chiffonade. We mopped up the last of the marinara sauce with chunks of grilled Italian bread.
The lineage of the lasagna ($10) did not come up, but any mother (or father, for that matter) would have been proud to bequeath to later generations the animating combination of beef and fennel-scented sausage at the heart of this classic dish. The addictive roasted red-pepper soup (thickened with potato and laced with sunflower seeds), which appeared as an opening act, wouldn’t be a bad legacy either.
Opinion at our little table (the café is tiny: just a handful of tables, though lots of windows) diverged rather startlingly on the matter of the macaroni and cheese ($8). We have never before disagreed about mac and cheese, have loved every one, fancy or plain, with Gruyère and Emmentaler or jack and American — yet the assessor across the table did not quite care for this version, with its faint, Asiatic breaths of nutmeg, turmeric, and mustard seeds and its vivid yellow color, while I found those effects (apart from the yellow) reminiscent of pastitsio, a traditional and beloved Greek dish. We did agree that the accompanying black-bean chili, with its pipings of crème fraîche, was lovely.
For Lombardo, pasta is very much the motif and casserole the method, but his flavor palettes, while heavily Italian, are not exclusively so. Besides the black-bean chili, there is also a fine turkey enchilada casserole ($9): almost a kind of Mexican lasagna, built on a floor of masa and including roasted poblano peppers, white cheese, a chili-scented tomato sauce, and plenty of turkey meat — stringy but tender, like Thanksgiving leftovers.
And there is life beyond pasta and casseroles: the café also offers a range of grilled panini — slices of grilled Italian country bread enclosing such treats as roast beef ($9). The roast beef sandwich includes caramelized onions, shavings of Gruyère, and smearings of horseradish sauce, with a crouton-rich (and under-anchovied but still quite tasty) Caesar salad on the side.
The front of the tiny house is intermittently overseen by Lombardo’s wife, Gwen, whose presence enhances the family-affair effect. She takes orders, runs the cash register, and serves the food while her husband the chef works behind her in the open kitchen, which occupies the long leg of the L-shaped space. It is possible that she also occasionally dashes home on some child-related errand, but when she is in situ, the Lombardos are not so much a power couple — the Bob and Liddy Dole of food — but joint laborers for love in a field that, while difficult, still makes room for little guys. For the restaurant business remains surprisingly, stubbornly local; yes, there are chains, but the chains tend to remind us of how many places are not chains: are instead unique, are expressions of a single sensibility, or are the product of a determined team that’s found a neighborhood niche. Will Lombardo’s Fine Foods turn out to be life’s pinnacle for John and Gwen Lombardo? The excellence of the orzo salad suggests to me that the answer is no — heights still to be scaled — but in the meantime, home is where the heart is. SFBG
LOMBARDO’S FINE FOODS
Continuous service: Tues.–Fri., 11 a.m.–9 p.m.; Sat., 9 a.m.–9 p.m.
1818 San Jose, SF
Beer and wine pending