Review: Lemoncello

Old world–style spot boasts one of Rochester’s few female executive chefs



A quaint brick eatery with a striped awning located on East Rochester’s main street has rabbit cacciatore on the menu, one of two things that immediately sets it apart. The other thing is even more rare in Rochester: a female executive chef supervising a kitchen of men. Lemoncello Italian Restaurant and Bar’s chef, Silvana Formosa, is a first-generation immigrant—a Sicilian who grew up in a community of Rochester Italians who welcomed her into their kitchens and showed her their culinary secrets.“I was brought up on old-fashioned, peasant-style home food, and I really believe people crave that,” she says.“I’ve had situations where people taste my food and they’ve been brought to tears because the flavors reminded them of meals their grandmother prepared before she passed on.

 

The two brothers who opened Lemoncello six years ago, Massimo and Fausto Albano, are also first-generation Italian immigrants. Massimo was born here but spent his first eleven years in the Piedmont region of Italy. His brother grew up in the south, arriving here at age fifteen. Their father, a mason, helped them transform a former dry cleaner into a restaurant seemingly plucked from the streets of Europe. "Lemoncello" is an Americanized spelling of limoncello, a citrus-based Italian liqueur often served straight up and chilled, and an ingredient in several house martinis and seasonal cocktails here. The Paradiso ($9), with its sweet blood orange liqueur, slightly bitter Aperol (a mild-mannered cousin to Campari), and bright limoncello strikes a complex, festive opening chord for the kind of meal that is not out of place on a patio in Turin or Muro Lucano.

There’s an inviting bar up front, packed with locals chatting up a busy bartender. In back, a high-ceilinged dining room with cozy round tables scattered about. There’s also an enclosed, all-weather patio and another outdoor space, the latter separated from the street by a wrought-iron gate.The interior design invites the eye to linger—an exposed brick wall here, a stone façade there, and stringed lights to set the mood. Nothing seems mismatched, and every element of the décor undoubtedly has a story. “Up north, there’s a lot of woodwork and in the south, there’s more bricks, masonry, and iron railings.We wanted the restaurant to reflect both of our heritages, as well as a bit of New York’s speakeasy past,” explains Massimo, who worked with his brother to create many scribbled back-of-napkin design plans. “We wanted to create an atmosphere with those little details."

   

That journey overseas—a mini-vacation of sorts—continues with the first appetizer, the calamari fritti ($12), prepared by Formoso. (The appetizer servings are huge, designed for sharing.) The calamari is an ample plate of flash-fried rings and tentacles, served with kalamata olives, sliced banana peppers, and a finely blended marinara sauce.With salt and pepper both mixed in and sprinkled on afterward, the batter is crisp but buttery. The squid is not at all chewy. A second appetizer, the antipasto plate ($15), is a generous arrangement of prosciutto, salami, and spicy capicola ham, along with a rotating cheese selection, olives, mushrooms, artichokes, and peppers. This platter provides something aside from butter to top the fresh bread included with every meal. A side salad included with the entrée is drizzled with housemade limoncello dressing, oil and honey–based but a bit on the sweet side. (The exact recipe, says Massimo, is a closely guarded secret.) Balance the lemon flavor with a few spoonfuls of salty Parmesan cheese from the table’s condiments tray.

"Cacciatore" means “hunter” in Italian and usually refers to a stew of root vegetables, tomatoes, and herbs served after a chilly autumn morn- ing of flushing out game—hopefully with freshly dressed quarry in hand to drop into the pot. The rabbit in Lemoncello’s cacciatore ($29) is domesticated, not wild, grown on Amish farms throughout the Finger Lakes region. The texture of rabbit is not unlike the dark meat of a chicken, though a bit denser and more infused with flavor. The stewed rabbit is arranged on a mound of vegetables the size of a softball. It’s challenging to use a fork and knife to flake away the meat from the fine bones. (Eventually, patrons break decorum and use their fingers, soaking up the moat of succulent broth with another slice ofbread.) For dessert, what else? A slice of lemoncello torte ($7). The restaurant’s baker makes the tart confection with ricotta cream and buttermilk. The icing has bits of crystallized lemon and sugar crystals that burst and linger as the wisp of cake melts away.

East Rochester, with its blue-collar roots, is an up-and-coming culinary town. Lemoncello took its place alongside the venerable Bistro 135 jazz lounge next door and the Northside Inn up the street in building a walkable, family-friendly restaurant district. In the past six years, an Irish pub and a Texas-style barbecue joint joined the scene. Make the drive to try an authentic Italian meal from the loving hands of real Italians. This cuisine, so central to the history of the region, is a genre worth exploring, and Lemoncello is a perfect place to start.

Mark Gillespie is communications manager for the RIT College of Science. He delights in exploring the culture, food, and outdoor spaces of the Greater Rochester area. 

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