211104LINOS

During a recent trip to Lino’s in Rockford, Illinois, Helene Ramsdell, a member of The Gazette’s restaurant review team The Four Dishes, ordered this salmon salad featuring artichokes, goat cheese, kalamata olives and creamy cheese served over lightly oiled lettuce.

ROCKFORD, ILLINOIS

Three generations of the Battista family have kept Lino’s a popular dining spots in Rockford.

In addition to several house specials worth trying and some of the best pizza around, Lino’s also has a large event space that makes it the go-to place for Rockford-area high school reunions. For me, it was a treat to go back after several years away.

Having not made a reservation, we were told the wait for a table would be about 15 minutes. We made our way over to the bar, where a very good jazz quartet was playing.

We learned “Jazz Night” is a regular thing on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and we had fun trying to guess the tunes from the melodies the band played.

After snagging a few seats, we began eyeing the drink specials.

I had an apple mimosa ($8), which was a light, refreshing concoction of cider topped with champagne and rimmed with apple pie-spiced sugar.

Jennifer, a fan of everything pumpkin, ordered the pumpkin spice martini ($8). It tasted like a slice of pumpkin pie in a martini glass—frothy with a nice cinnamon flavor.

When our table was ready, we were led to one of the dining rooms right off the bar. Round booths lined one side, and warm, gold-textured walls enhanced the cozy factor. One interesting structure within this space is a replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, which features a dining table fit for a crowd inside.

We started with the toasted ravioli ($8.99), which featured a dozen crunchy ravioli served in a simple, fresh tomato sauce. It was perfect, although we kept thinking about the shrimp de jonghe ($14.49) we didn’t order. I still wish we had.

Because everything looked good, I had trouble deciding on a main course. But I was in a pasta mood, so I ended up getting half tortellini and half gnocchi ($13.99).

Lino’s offers both small and large sizes, but my “small” order was enough to ensure I had a good amount to enjoy again the next day.

Stuffed with a light, meat filling, the tortellini were soft, light pillows covered in a simply spiced tomato sauce. The firm little gnocchi dumplings were even better the next day after they had absorbed some of the sauce.

Lino’s dinners come with salad, coffee and ice cream, so we shared a big bowl of the house salad. Drizzled with a light Italian dressing, the simple lettuce mix also contained sausage and hard-boiled eggs.

Nikki ordered the spicy meatball pizza ($17.30/medium), which was intended to serve 2-3 people. That worked out well, as it allowed us all to try a piece.

The pizza was cut into squares and had just the right amount of kick from the pepperoncinis. Everything about Lino’s pizzas is homemade, from the dough, sauce and meatballs to the specially crafted cheese made from local milk. It was a real treat.

It was no surprise to Helene why the salmon salad is a signature dish on Lino’s menu ($16.49). Unsure of the combination of artichokes and salmon but drawn to the goat cheese, Helene found it to be a wonderful mixture of flavors.

The saltiness of the kalamata olives that accompanied the entree was tempered by creamy cheese. Lightly oiled lettuce and marinated artichokes created a dressing for the salad and the moist, flaky salmon, which proved to be a satisfying meal.

Jennifer also ordered one of Lino’s signature dishes, the famous baked lasagna ($15.49/small). Covered in a sea of sauce, the dish offers a plentiful portion of meatless, three-cheese lasagna. The al dente noodles were prepared to perfection, and the cheeses oozed out as she cut into the hearty, robust dish.

For our treat, we all upgraded from regular ice cream to the homemade Gelato Joe.

Nikki and I had the lemon basil, which was a light, citrusy, water-based treat that went down very easy. Helene opted for the mocha crunch and its subtle flavor that is reminiscent of coffee. Light on the crunch, its highlight was the silky and creamy texture of the gelato.

Jennifer went with the pistachio gelato, a soft and silky custard-based dessert that was not overly sweet and offered a slight hint of the nuttiness.

Whether you’re in the mood for a homestyle Italian dinner or just want to sit at a bar and nosh on some good food while sipping a cocktail and listening to jazz, Lino’s is an ideal spot that is well worth checking out.

The Four Dishes—Nikki Bolka, Helene Ramsdell, Jennifer Spangler and Beth Webb—review regional restaurants for The Gazette.

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