When Sal Lamboglia opened Cafe Spaghetti, the name told the world what it would be. As he readies his next restaurant, Swoony’s, for its October debut, Lamboglia knows the concept needs at least some explanation. “It’s American food, but what is ‘American food’?” he asks before answering his own question: “It’s everything.”
The son of Italian immigrants, Lamboglia grew up in Bensonhurst, and his first cooking job was at La Cucina Italian Specialties. At Swoony’s, he’s drawing on a different part of his childhood: “There was this place called Richelieu Restaurant,” he says. “I remember going there once a month with my parents, having a burger with a big pickle and a bowl of soup. It felt a little older, a little more classic.” Swoony’s was conceived to be in the same mold: a neighborhood restaurant that makes just as much sense for a birthday dinner as it does for thrice-weekly regulars. There will be martinis and a wine list with bottles from California, France, and Italy; there will also be people from the neighborhood bringing their kids in for burgers. “There will be a couple steaks, a little bit of seafood, chicken with mustard sauce. And I love shrimp cocktail.” What’s for dessert? “We’ll probably do an ice cream, a baked item, and a chocolate item,” he muses. “And from there it’s game on.”
For Cafe Spaghetti, the chef kept a running list of 200-plus menu ideas in his Notes app. As Swoony’s ramps up, Lamboglia has a new note he calls “things I like to eat that are not Italian”: crab dip, curry mussels, garlic shrimp, blue-cheese olives, ratatouille. He adds, “Last night, I wrote down ‘corn dogs.’ Am I going to test out a corn dog? Probably not — but maybe.”
While the menu comes into focus, the dining room is nearly done: Swoony’s has 65 seats spread across banquettes, booths, and a dark wooden bar. The walls are painted a dusky navy, and original pressed-tin ceilings remain intact. “I love cabinets and trinkets and floral plates,” Lamboglia says. There are 12 frosted-glass cabinets above the bar and two cardboard boxes brimming with mismatched vintage plates that Lamboglia procured after a three-hour drive to meet a Connecticut antiques dealer on the side of the road. The final weeks before opening are dedicated to “the fun part,” he says: finding the right nook for the silverware tray and deciding where to hang framed pictures, like a vaguely ’80s-era abstract print of brightly colored trapezoids.
The obvious move for Lamboglia would have been more Italian, which is what makes Swoony’s so compelling: The chef will get to show off another side of himself, and he clearly loves the process of figuring out what exactly that can be.
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