04/19/2012 06:10 pm ET Updated Jun 19, 2012

Locanda del Lago: A Window on Lake Como

Santa Monica locals in the mood for authentic Italian food in a fun, friendly environment already know about Locanda del Lago. The restaurant, situated on Arizona Avenue at a busy corner of Third Street Promenade, makes for some great people-watching. But as close as it is to the bustling world outside, there is a sense inside the spacious dining room of being far away from it all.

And that's the idea that owner West Hooker-Poletti had in mind when he turned his vision into reality. He wanted to bring Angelenos his memories of beautiful Lake Como. If you have a little imagination (and maybe a little wine), you might just feel you're actually there. The menu features traditional and contemporary cuisine from Lombardy, as well as Milan.

My first piece of advice when visiting Locanda del Lago is to come early and have a drink at the bar. In contrast to the dining room, the bar is -- well, I prefer "intimate" to "small." It's the sort of place where you are, by its very nature, encouraged to interact with others. Chances are, you'll make a few friends over one of the best happy hours in the area (4-7 p.m.; weekend only in the bar; and Tuesday -- all night long).

There is a decent selection of wines and beers with a few great specialty cocktails and martinis. After your meal, stop back at the bar. There's a good selection of after-dinner drinks, including grappas, Scotches and ports.

Starters include Lake Como's regional specialties such as fritto misto del lago, with calamari, tiger shrimp, fresh water shrimp, zucchini, and spicy arrabbiata and garlic aïoli dips.

You can opt for a variety of main courses made with sustainable seafood sourced from local Southern California fishermen and the chef's seasonal menu rounds out the dinner options, with ingredients hand‐picked to highlight the best of the Southern California produce. You can also enjoy savory dishes rarely found outside of Northern Italy, such as vitello tonnato, chilled veal tenderloin with Genoa tuna‐caper aïoli; and missultin, sundried agone fish from Lake Como, with grilled polenta unica and red wine vinegar.

Recently, Hooker-Poletti began a new tradition that I hope catches on all over town. In the spirit of embracing the "whole animal" philosophy, each month, the restaurant features a special menu that offers a few courses making use of different parts of the animal. It's exciting to see what a good chef can come up with under such parameters. It would, I imagine, also make for a good conversation on a first or second date. Furthermore, it's a very affordable way to enjoy a really good meal.

You really can't go wrong at Locanda del Lago on any night, but the "whole animal" menu is something not worth missing.