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Published: Thursday, 2/14/2008

Restaurant review: LaScola Italian Grill ****

In restaurant circles, that buzz you've been hearing in South Toledo emanates from a handsome building on Airport Highway. The name, written in script above the entrance, is LaScola Italian Grill, the city's gleaming new dining destination.

The word-of-mouth buzz since the opening in October is the result not only of the imaginative Italian cuisine but also of its garlic-scented ambiance and splendid European dcor. Large, gorgeous lamps and a stained-glass ceiling subtly illuminate the place, while delicate wrought-iron fixtures and a sculpture of a bambino cradling a bottle of champagne add to its character.

The passenger manifest so far has included noteworthy people from all walks of Toledo - society swells, power brokers, ladies who lunch, old pals of Gus Nicolaidis and his partners, and eager curiosity-seekers drawn to LaScola for the best of reasons: the food.

With its black leather lounge area, banquettes, gorgeous bar, and faux-marble pillars, La-

Scola invites patrons to pull up a chair and sit for a spell, sipping a perfect manhattan or a glass of wine while deciding what to order. The choices are many: bruschetta formaggio, a luscious plate of antipasto at lunch or dinner, many pasta dishes, veal saltimbocca, strip steak with potato lasagna, herb-encrusted grouper, and lots more.

Nicolaidis, who owned the former Oak'en Bucket on Reynolds Road for 26 years, has teamed up with Moussa Salloukh and Chef Chris Dewart to transform the premises of the former Bungalow and Damon's restaurants into what promises to be a first-class eatery.

The appointments are impressive as noted, but a fantastic gallery of framed black and white photographs, visible from just about wherever you end up sitting, has become LaScola's much-viewed, much-discussed signature flourish.

The nearly 300 images span several generations of Toledo history, from visits by President John F. Kennedy and golfing great Jack Nicklaus to dozens of other politicians, celebrities, singers, and local grandees of all stripes. But the majority of pictures capture the Nicolaidis family and their kin over many decades, from the very young to the very old. The only thing missing are captions to give us a hint as to who everybody is.

Oh yes, back to the food. On several visits, we found the kitchen output to be above average, with the potential of becoming truly excellent. There were inevitable missteps: An undercooked steak, an overcooked plate of pasta, and a luncheon burger whose juiciness suffered from too lean a cut (ground sirloin instead of chuck). But these were annoyances that pale next to all the good food that came our way.

As for example; two divine soups, tomato bisque and potato leek ($3.95); bruschetta formaggio appetizer ($7.95) served on crunchy ciabatta bread with pancetta, mozzarella, pesto, and alfredo sauce; succulent herb-baked shrimp ($11.95); salciccia and pepperoni sausage ($6.95), and a sensational $8.95 antipasto of capicola, salami, prosciutto, cheeses, olives, and artichokes.

So far as I've been able to determine, LaScola is the only place in town that prepares pasta carbonara ($12.95), a delicious mix of garlic, peas, prosciutto, asiago, and fettuccini. Its equal can be found in the spaghetti Bolognese ($15.95), which reminded me of Rome for the lightness of the veal and cream and with a dash of marinara sauce. Also worth going back for are the Bistecca Toscana ($24.95), a 14-ounce strip dandied up with garlic oil, herbs, and black pepper, and a good whitefish ($14.95) with a novel pistachio-polenta crust.

Finally, sandwich lovers with a sense of whimsy may want to try a couple of paninis at lunch: the Reubenetta and the chicken parmesandwich. Who says an Italian restaurateur can't make fun of the language?

Contact Bill of Fare at fare@theblade.com



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