Italian delights, family style

Welcoming atmosphere, lake view enhance dining experience at Tony’s

Sometimes we’re amazed at all the wonderful dining experiences we have in the Inland Northwest – or in this case we’ll call it the circulation area of The Spokesman-Review.

As we discover a new one, we always wonder why we didn’t get there sooner, vowing to return. When we return, we often promise to go more often.

Of course that doesn’t happen, what with all the different choices to disperse our limited dining budget. As we sat at Tony’s on the Lake recently for our third annual visit for a better half’s birthday, we thought about that.

Obviously our three main criteria are covered: great food for the price, great service and clean. So is our favorite bonus – a great atmosphere, which in this case means a lovely view of Lake Coeur d’Alene. And the food is simply sensational.

But we’ve managed to cover the triple crown of guidelines plus good view and food elsewhere. Why had Tony’s become the requested go-to destination for one of our wives?

We decided the answer lies in all the little – and not so little – things that add up to an absolutely wonderful dining experience: The owners splitting the jobs of greeting, seating, and cooking for you; the professional yet friendly bartender and wait staff; the linen, the high-end silver, plateware and stemware; the value-based menu and wine list; etc. It all adds up to an evening that just feels right and tastes great.

As you may have noticed, we deal with local, family-owned establishments, and we’re rather chatty.

At Tony’s, not only do Paul and Bonnie D’Alessandro greet and seat us, but they have given us a glimpse into their lives. We have learned that their daughter, Cheyenne, is the chef. She graduated from The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and studied in Florence, Italy.

The D’Alessandros took over in the summer of 2004 from the Tony Carneiro family. Presumably, that’s who changed the one-time bordello into a restaurant.

Those tidbits seem to make it a bit easier to part with your money.

As our waitress, Tina, prepped our table on the deck, she warned us repeatedly that yellow jackets have been a problem and pointed out to us the various ways – from industrial strength to old wives’ tales – they have tried to deal with the problem.

As we savored the mozzarella appetizer and a glass of wine, without yellow jackets, we realized that, having dined there more than a dozen times, our expectation of great food was somewhat taken for granted. That itself is a story.

There was an extended discussion about who would order the Pesce del Giorna, or fresh fish of the day, which was halibut ($29). The other three items were the Saltimbocca di Mailale alla Marsala ($19), Gnocchi con Gorgonzola ($19) and Gamberoni e Cappe Sante ($29).

As with our past visits, our waitress had a co-worker help deliver our dinners so there was no waiting – or food cooling for those of us sitting on the deck with the great view of the lake.

As usual, when the meals arrived, we shared. The gnocchi, a house-made potato dumpling in gorgonzola cream sauce, was wonderful and very rich. The saltimbocca, pork topped with fresh sage, prosciutto, sautéed mushrooms and a Marsala sauce, was almost the opposite because of its saltiness.

The birthday girl loved her gamberoni, prawns and scallops served over a saffron fennel potato puree. The crusted halibut may have been the favorite of all, if there was a favorite: All four dishes were spotless.

Although stuffed, we also shared the light and delightful complementary birthday dessert.

On a previous visit, the Conchiglie ai Quattro Formaggio al Forno ($15) sounded just right. Later, after devouring the baked shell-shaped pasta in a four-cheese sauce with caramelized onions, we realized we were raving about the greatest mac and cheese ever. No wonder we keep returning.

Tony’s is a destination spot located on a dead-end street.  There are good entry-level-priced wines and nearly a dozen entrees for less than $20. It’s a first-class yet affordable restaurant, even with the whole crew from boating all day.  Tie up at the dock and walk across the street, with considerate boating attire accepted, if not the norm.

A picture-postcard view adds to the ambiance as well as the lack of any other commercial endeavors in sight. We found it an easy mental jump from knowing we were dining on the outdoor patio overlooking Lake Coeur d’Alene to imagining we were in Lombardy, overlooking Lake Como.

Former longtime S-R writer Dave Trimmer and his friend, former restaurateur Dan Coyle, forged a common bond over dinner and drink. They share favorites in this column, which runs monthly in the 7 section. Reach them at daveanddan@hotmail.com.

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