Growing up, I had a few friends with Italian roots. And for them, the term for that tomato-red stuff Mom poured over a plate of pasta noodles was "gravy." The word choice always struck me as odd—in my household, gravy was what blanketed your pot roast and Thanksgiving bird; it was salty, fortified with corn starch, and laden with enough onions to ensure a night of eventful digestion. What my buddies called gravy I always knew as "sauce."
Those little divergencies of language interest me, much like the way someone might favor the word "soda" over "pop." But in this case, I now know—having been set straight by Club Lago's mountainous Monday lasagna ($11)—that sauce and gravy aren't exactly synonymous. In fact, the two can be very different animals, and, when it comes to certain Italian-American comfort-food toppings, the latter is simply the mot juste.
Club Lago has been a neighborhood fixture since 1952. Even after a 2009 fire and subsequent rehab, the place still captures the essence of a bygone era, with its checkered tablecloths, whispering jazz music, and walls lined with hand-painted sailboats and black-and-white photos. The lasagna, a weekly special available on Mondays, also has a wonderful throwback quality to its presentation and execution: balanced on a thick oval plate stands a tall stack of swollen, fluffy, wavy noodles punctuated by a delicate stuffing of milky ricotta and juicy ground meat. A generous helping of an intriguing, meat-studded substance—rich, savory, slow-cooked, and ruddy-toned—had been lovingly spread across the multi-story architecture and its surroundings.
Once I began carving away at the bulging edifice, it wasn't long before I had leveled the whole thing. This lasagna is delicious, in its easygoing way, the kind of food, I thought later on, that you eat with your gut. Part of me wanted to size it up against newer Italian fare popular in Chicago right now. But quibbling over its lack of an oven crisp or roasted vegetables or much of any chef-driven flourishes would seem to miss the point of this lasagna; for its much more enjoyable to celebrate what it is rather than question what it isn't. It's a beautiful plate of food, covered in gravy that Mom would approve.
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