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Dinner at Lugo Caffe

"Lugo Caffe is located at 1 Penn Plaza? Interesting address. Isn't that right across the street from Madison Square Garden?" I wondered. Sure enough, after doing a quick restaurant search for "Lugo Caffe" on menupages.com, my greatest fear was confirmed: 1 Penn Plaza sat on 33rd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues...Directly across the street from Madison Square Garden. Lugo Caffe, Midtown South/Chelsea's newest Italian, was conceived in one of the most random and challenging neighborhoods for a restaurant of its caliber. T.G.I.Friday's, locally-owned deli's, and fast food joints lined the streets and took center stage...Until now.

After my mother and I exited our taxi on 33rd Street, it took me a couple of moments to locate 1 Penn Plaza. As we approached the large office building, I saw Lugo Caffe situated on the ground floor. What stood out like a desert oasis was a space that had me at "hello." Upon entering the restaurant, I found the interior divided in to three rooms; a bar, main dining area, and a semi secluded private dining space. Artfully displayed just above the boisterous open bar were the words "La Dolce Vita," which means "the sweet life" in Italian. The space felt so large for a New York City restaurant; perhaps it was because of the grand twenty-foot-tall ceilings and walls of windows that overlooked Lugo's very own vast outdoor patio. Rooms were divided by fully-stocked wine racks appearing to be suspended mid-air. The usage of butcher block tables, subway tiles and art deco-style lamps, fans and a splash of Vespa turquoise-blue was the perfect combination of "brasserie" meets "modern Italian chic."

Although my mother and I arrived at 6:30p.m. (which is considered quite early), Lugo was already hopping with both happy hour and dinner patrons. Impressive, especially for a restaurant that had not even been open yet for a month! We were seated promptly and given a basket filled with two large pieces of bread, a bowl of infused olive oil and food and drink menus. Mom and I each ordered a martini, and began perusing what to choose for our appetizers and entrees.

To begin, we chose to split three appetizers. Brussels sprouts are my new obsession, so when I placed this particular order, I suppose I wasn't expecting these emerald green morsels to arrive chilled. The Classic "Caesar" dressed with romaine, parmigiana, a bitter-creamy lemon dressing and homemade croutons was one of the best versions of the salad that I've tasted. Our third appetizer was the Mozzarella Carozza, which was sliced cheese lightly fried and served with stewed baby tomatoes. I enjoyed this dish, however, I thought that the batter surrounding the mozzarella tasted more like tempura than traditional "carozza" (an exterior so lightly crisp, one may not know that it's fried). My mother even mentioned that this dish reminded her of the mozzarella "sticks" one can order at sports bars. I was horrified!

In keeping the spirit of sharing, we decided to split two entrees. The homemade ravioli filled with velvety ricotta cheese, spinach and topped with a simple dollop of stewed fresh tomatoes and chopped basil was divine. Besides the light dusting of freshly grated parmigiana cheese added table side, I, the self-professed salt/pepper addict, had one of my very first "douse free" experiences. Conveniently, we ordered a Margherita pizza to sop up all of the extra pasta sauce. Think authentic Italian pizza: Thin, lightly charred crust; chunky, bright red tomato sauce; homemade mozzarella cheese and finished with fresh basil leaves. Delicioso!

To end our meal on a sweet note, Mom and I split the profiteroles and an order of ricotta cheesecake. I was surprised to find that the profiteroles were filled with custard instead of (what I thought was traditional) gelato. The cheesecake was nice, but it would have been much tastier had the crust been thicker.

Lugo Caffe is the most welcome addition to the neighborhood surrounding Madison Square Garden! For a restaurant that has just been open for a month now, I found that it has very few "kinks" to work out. The food, service and space were lovely and I look forward to returning.

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