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Thursday, March 18, 2004 06:26 am

How sweet it is

Greg Walter, manager of Lonzerotti’s in Jacksonville

Lonzerotti's Italia Restaurant is best known for two signature items: salad dressing and breadsticks. OK, you may be asking, just how special can a simple salad and stick of bread be? Very special, if the two items in question are the sweet Italian dressing and lighter-than-air rolls served in this renovated circa-1910 train station near downtown Jacksonville.

I rediscovered Lonzerotti's during a recent wine-tasting dinner. Each of the dinners, which are held monthly, promotes a different theme, with samples of nine wines and portions of three entrées, plus salad, bread and dessert. I attended the "How Sweet It Is" dinner along with approximately 90 other people, including local residents and large groups from Mt. Sterling and Virginia. Owner Jon Carls acted as host, greeting the crowd and explaining the evening's menu, and wine experts were on hand to explain the aspects of each wine as it was served. I learned the unique characteristics of a variety of sweet wines, from California Chardonnay and white cabernet to Gewürztraminer and asti. We were each given a scorecard on which to make notes about the wines and play our own ratings game.

Dinner began with the house salad, made with romaine and iceberg lettuce, shredded Provel cheese, tomatoes, onion and pepperoncini and topped with the sweet Italian house dressing. The breadsticks, which are basically miniloaves of French bread coated with butter and imported Parmesan cheese, arrive at your table straight from the oven and almost melt in your mouth. I was told that the degree of lightness depends on exact timing of the French dough as it bakes in the oven and that some people actually prefer a denser or harder version, but what I tasted that night was perfection.

The wine kept flowing as the breadbasket was frequently replenished. Two of the three entrées we were served at the dinner are not on the regular menu but should be: chicken Marco Polo, an ample breast portion sprinkled with Parmesan and browned, then topped with cauliflower, broccoli and more Provel cheese; and shrimp Italiano, a mix of pasta and large shrimp tossed with a rich blend of Alfredo and tomato sauces. The third entrée, Mostaccioli Marinara -- a dish of tube-shaped noodles covered in rich tomato sauce -- is available every day.

The wine dinners are one of the few changes owners Jon and Bonny Carls have made since purchasing Lonzerotti's in 2002 from Mike and Betty Goldasich, who opened the restaurant in 1987 and operated it for 15 years. Mike, an architect, renovated the former Chicago and Alton Railroad station, a Prairie design, with original woodwork and Florentine glass transoms. Diners eat at white-linen-topped tables in a roomwhere passengers once waited for trains. The white brick walls, vintage train pictures, trellises dripping with grapevines and lights hanging from the ceiling make for a charming atmosphere.

The restaurant's name is a tribute to Betty Goldasich's maiden name and the Lonzerotti family recipes that are still in use today. The Goldasichs developed the salad dressing, which they still produce and distribute through Lonzerotti's Italian Products and sell at local supermarkets.

The wine-and-entrée dinners are the result of a brainstorming session held by Jon Carls and the restaurant's managers, who wanted to create fun events to attract more business through the week, says Carls. They appear to have succeeded: Although Carls likes to limit the dinners to about 50 people, the dinners often accommodate as many as 90. "More than half of the attendees are repeat customers, but each dinner usually draws some new faces as well," he says. The wines are chosen by restaurant staffers, wine purveyors and Illinois and Missouri wineries.

The regular menu offers traditional pasta dishes, as well as seafood lasagna, chicken Marsala, veal piccata and steaks. Nightly specials are offered, with prime rib featured on weekends. Many entrées are also available in smaller portions, which is fortunate because you can easily make a meal of the salad and bread alone. The dessert selection includes tiramisu, cobbler and cheesecake. Judging from what I sampled at the wine dinner, I can't wait to return and order from the regular menu.

The next wine dinners will be held April 1 and 21. The theme for April 1 is "Employee Favorites," and the April 21 dinner will feature wines from Stone Hill Winery in Hermann, Mo. Call 217-243-7151 to purchase tickets, which cost $20. I've already made my reservation.

Lonzerotti's Italia Restaurant is located at 600 E. State St. in Jacksonville. Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Mon.-Sat., 5-9 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 5-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat.

L'avvocato gigante

The city of Jacksonville is promoting a weekend travel package April 2-4 that combines history with Italian food.

The main event of the weekend is The Shadow of Giants: Mr. Lincoln Comes to Jacksonville, a play depicting Abraham Lincoln's time spent in Jacksonville as a lawyer.

Four shows will be presented at the Morgan County Courthouse during the weekend. The package also includes a presentation about the new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield; guided tours of Underground Railroad, including the recently purchased Woodlawn Farm near Jacksonville; and tours of the Lincoln Courthouse, the Black Museum and the River Museum in Beardstown.

The package, which costs $135 per couple, includes two theater tickets, dinner for two at Lonzerotti's and tours.

For more information, contact the Jacksonville Area Visitors and ConventionsBureau at 800-593-5678 or go to www.jacksonvilleil.org/tourism.  

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