Lago di Como's new menu focuses on homemade pasta, seafood and steak aged in-house.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Food & Drink

New partnership re-envisions Lago di Como restaurant, turning a hidden gem into a diamond

Seafood, homemade pasta and steaks aged in-house are now the focus at Live Oak Italian spot Lago di Como for Giovanbattista Spanu and Matteo Robecchi, both from northern Italy, after Robecchi and wife/partner Lindsay Rodriguez made the move following years at Seabright’s Tramonti.

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In the decade since it opened in 2011, Lago di Como restaurant stayed off many people’s radar despite having some of the best Italian cuisine in the area. Maybe it’s the location: The neighborhood spot sits on the ocean side of East Cliff Drive, a few blocks from bodysurfing haunt Blacks Beach and the semiprivate Sunny Cove in the Live Oak neighborhood just outside of Santa Cruz — off the beaten path for tourists and locals alike. But it still collected a loyal following of Italian culinary devotees who would insist that the northern Italian dishes, pastas and wood-fired pizzas created by friendly chef and owner Giovanbattista Spanu — known as Giovanni — were worth seeking out.

But now, two new business partners have helped turn this hidden gem into a diamond. Chef Matteo Robecchi and his wife and partner, Lindsay Rodriguez, have more than 25 years of restaurant experience between them. The young couple most recently managed Tramonti, an Italian restaurant in the Seabright neighborhood in Santa Cruz, where, for the past three years, Robecchi was the chef and Rodriguez ran the front-of-house. After departing from Tramonti at the end of 2022, the couple partnered with Spanu last spring and together they breathed new life and energy into Lago di Como.

Former guests might hardly recognize it. After closing for a whirlwind monthlong remodel, Lago di Como reopened in March with an elegant, modern interior rich with lush colors and luxe details. White tablecloths, gold fixtures and lake-green walls stretch toward a bar topped with emerald Brazilian marble. Nautical touches and nostalgic photographs and art decorate the walls. The Italian phrase “Tutto a posto” is scribbled in neon in the entry; “Niente in ordine” hangs over the bar. Taken together, it means “Everything in its place, nothing in order,” and reads as a whimsical invitation for guests to loosen up and have a good time — everything is taken care of.

Chef Matteo Robecchi uncorks a bottle of wine at Lago di Como in Live Oak.
Chef Matteo Robecchi uncorks a bottle of wine at Lago di Como in Live Oak.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Uniformed servers attend to tables in green-and-white striped shirts, carrying dishes of mussels steamed with wine, spicy nduja salami and chickpeas; calamari and head-on prawns fried in cornmeal; and fresh spaghetti tossed with clams and shaved bottarga roe. In the doorway to the kitchen, one can glimpse the wood-fired oven from which many of the restaurant’s most memorable dishes emerge.

Both Spanu and Robecchi are originally from northern Italy — Spanu is from the village of Bellagio on the shore of Lake Como and Robecchi is from Milan — and have roots in the island of Sardinia. The new menu reflects that shared heritage and aims to offer lesser-known Italian dishes from both the north and south, with an emphasis on seafood, homemade pasta and steaks aged in-house.

The fragrant kiss of woodsmoke is present on many star dishes, like the fresh scallops breaded, seasoned with garlic and roasted until the plush interior is just-set and sweet; lemony artichokes covered in breadcrumbs and pecorino and finished with fresh mint; the pollo al mattone, an organic half-chicken roasted to poultry perfection, served with potatoes and a spicy calabrese sauce; and whole branzino, skin cross-hatched and crispy, served with caramelized fennel and plenty of lemon.

Now, all of the pasta is made fresh in house. On a recent evening, creamy pools of stracciatella cheese melted over plump gnocchi in a fiery diavola sauce. In the spaghetti alla nerano, three simple ingredients — sweet summer zucchini, provolone and homemade egg noodles — were raised to new, decadent heights. Lago di Como also serves the beloved but not-often-seen Roman pasta alla carbonara, made with guanciale, egg yolk and pecorino.

The restaurant’s most impressive dish is displayed in an illuminated window by the wine fridge. Robecchi is passionate about aging meat to improve the flavor, and the bistecca fiorentina — a premium 3-pound Florentine-style porterhouse — is aged in-house, grilled and finished in the oven. The ruby-centered Tuscan steak is sliced and presented with the T-bone pointing up. Needless to say, it makes quite an entrance as it waltzes across the dining room toward hungry guests.

The vision at Lago di Como 2.0 feels cohesive, fresh and energetic, but a few months ago Spanu, Rodriguez and Robecchi were facing professional transitions. By mid-2022, after 11 years of running the restaurant on his own, Spanu was burnt out and looking for a partner to help with the load. At the same time, Rodriguez and Robecchi had left Tramonti and were also looking for better work-life balance. The couple often ate at Lago di Como on their rare nights off, and Robecchi and Spanu had entered business together a few years prior when they briefly opened an Italian deli on 41st Avenue. The timing happened to be perfect and there was an instant connection. Now, all three co-owners describe the new partnership as a “win-win-win.”

“We all had a feeling of trust immediately,” says Robecchi. Spanu says he and Robecchi share the same ideas when it comes to the kitchen, and sharing the chef role has allowed them to prepare more complex dishes. “Before, Lago was good — not great. But once they came, it was a chance for each of us to do something more,” says Spanu.

Now, Lago di Como has a warmth that customers feel the moment they enter the restaurant. Spanu credits Rodriguez for managing the front-of-house with hospitality and confidence.

“I really care about making people comfortable but also making it fun,” she says. “I really believe in connecting with people.”

They admit that not all of Lago’s old customers were on board with the new vision. Some popular dishes were taken off the menu, although they occasionally grace the specials list, and now the wood-fired pizzas are offered only on Sundays. But the team insists they wanted to offer something different than other Italian restaurants in the area. Rodriguez explains, “There’s so many dishes that people have never tasted, never discovered and don’t even think or know as Italian. So the idea was, let’s show people what traditional Italian is — the real, authentic Italian — like they’ve never seen before.”

More changes are on the way. In the next few weeks, they will install a temperature controlled wine cellar in a corner of the restaurant, which will allow them to import and store vintages of fine Italian wines. Guests will be able to peer into the collection through a glass door in the dining room.

Keeping the original name of the restaurant was intentional. Robecchi says he wanted to honor the roots of Lago di Como and respect Spanu’s kitchen and heritage. The improvements to the space and the menu came from a desire to step back from the idea of casual, fast dining and “put the customer at the center of the experience,” says Robecchi. “We want to take them on a little trip to Italy. We want to tell a story — our story.”

21490 East Cliff Dr., Santa Cruz. 831-454-8257.