Until now, Baldwin Park lacked the sort of high-caliber dining destination it deserved and, frankly, needed in order to draw diners from outside the 32814 area code. Other neighborhoods have theirs (Luma on Park in Winter Park; K Restaurant and Wine bar in College Park; Graze in Lake Eola; even Journeys in Longwood), and while Lago, as stunning a boîte as you'll find anywhere in the city, has yet to prove itself as far as longevity is concerned, that may be the sole aspect it lacks when compared to the others.
When Lago first opened, in December 2008, inconsistency and a lack of direction plagued the kitchen and front of the house, but by March, they got their act together. The service, under the guidance of general manager Jimmy Isley, was brought in line while owner Giovanni Acireale (Isley's uncle) brought his 40-plus years of cooking experience into Lago's gleaming kitchen. No easy task for a 60-something restaurateur (he also runs a sister restaurant, Giovanni's, in Jacksonville Beach), but judging from the dishes I had the pleasure of sampling, the man hasn't lost a beat.
Neither did the pianist in the chic circular bar, for that matter, whose airy notes rippled through the spacious, cool blue, whimsically sophisticated interior. Wavy banquettes, lily-pad lighting and bubbly touches lend an underwater dining effect, and floor-to-ceiling windows offer lakeside views no matter where you sit. Some opt for seats at the exhibition kitchen counter, where all the drama unfolds, and after one bite of the stuffed meatball ($10), a wonderfully rustic cheese-and-peas-packed starter, I was ready to give Acireale a standing O. The magnificent saucy orb was served with sublime, sop-worthy slabs of glistening garlic bread that I couldn't help but fill up on. What oven-roasted beets over baby arugula ($9) lacked in substance, they more than made up for in flavor, as did olive-oil-marinated rounds of creamy-tart goat cheese.
Mains aren't quite Italian to the letter, but they shine nonetheless. Perfectly seared steaks of ahi tuna rubbed with espresso ($29) generated buzz, as did the cracking risotto cake on which they sat, though a tangy layer of fennel 'cevicheâ?� proved too disruptive a condiment. Exemplary al dente bucatini enveloping grilled chicken ($19), spinach, sundried tomatoes and mushrooms in a rich creamy sauce delivered for those looking for a taste of tradition.
Luscious tiramisu ($8), fashioned by Isley himself, completed the affair on a superlative note, but is it the best in town? I may have to pay another visit to Rocco's Italian Grille before issuing a final verdict. For those with a sweet tooth veering toward the indulgent, the trio of profiteroles ($8) filled with vanilla gelato and drizzled with chocolate sauce dulcifies thoroughly. An extensive wine list offers bottles for any budget (including a decent number of selections by the glass), and wine lockers and a private room cater to more serious oenophiles.
Foamless cappuccinos ($4), the only disappointment of the night, were blamed on a malfunctioning machine. I would've expected the coffees to be removed from the bill, but they weren't. Still, the lone miscue didn't sully the experience, and if Lago keeps up the same level of quality, Baldwin Park will soon have its very own destination dining locale.