Thursday, December 22, 2016

A last supper at the Milano Inn

The past week was not a good one for me; my list of favorite dining haunts was reduced (or would soon be reduced) by three.

First, I learned that the second owners who tried to keep afloat a neighborhood cafe and eatery have decided to pack it in. The last day for the Garfield Eatery and Coffee, just south of Garfield Park on Shelby Street in Indianapolis, is Friday, Dec. 23. I'm not sure if I'm going to have a chance to get over there before then. I was there early this month before the closing was announced, but that was the first time I'd gotten there in quite a while -- even though it's walking distance from home. There's no word on whether anyone else is interested in keeping it open as an eatery.

The current owners lasted 16 months, which was seven months more than the first owners who transformed the space into a wonderful destination; in its previous iteration, it was a problematic tavern. The tavern operation actually had been closed for a while, so the building stood idle for a short time. Even as the Garf prepares to close, the quaint bookstore next door continues to look for a buyer; it's been for sale going on at least a year now.

Meanwhile, I found out just yesterday that a favorite dining establishment in Greenwood, Hal's
Fabulous Vegas, had closed in early July. That was shortly after my last visit, a month earlier. Hal's had been open for 10 years, and on the eatery's Facebook page, Hal (who, by the way, is Hal Yeagy, owner and operator of the Slippery Noodle Inn in downtown Indianapolis) said that it had been a good run but it was time to shut down.

I'd been to Hal's at least a half-dozen times (if not more); the first time was only about three years ago. It was a place for a couple of my birthday observances. My first visit, though, came with a dining group I belonged to at the time. It decided to check out Hal's when the restaurant participated in Savor the Southside, a project when eateries in a community offer discounts on select menu items for about two weeks or so.

One of the deals Hal's offered for Savor the Southside that year was a grilled salmon topped with raspberry glaze served on rice pilaf. For an appetizer, it offered its signature jackpot shrimp. The shrimp and salmon were divine; both remain the best shrimp appetizer (even better than Indy's St. Elmo's) and salmon I've ever had at a restaurant.

Our dining group visited Hal's on a Saturday night, and a few of us were so blown away by our meals we tried to go back the next day. We were bummed to learn that Hal's was closed on Sundays. I was bummed even more when, the next time I went there (which was for my birthday), the salmon dish I had enjoyed and SO looked forward to was no longer on the menu. I inquired about it, and the server told me the dish left the menu when the head chef left the restaurant's employment. Fortunately, the jackpot shrimp was still there, so I was able to enjoy it a few more times (although when I was there in June, the recipe for that seemed to be slightly different).

Finally ... a couple weeks ago, I learned that Milano Inn owners Gina and Tina LaGrotte would be closing the restaurant (pictured in the lead-off photo) on Indianapolis' near-Southside at the end of the year. Milano Inn, which Italian immigrants Paul and Joe Modaffari opened in 1934, had come to be a favorite of mine. I've been there probably three dozen times, the first coming in 1997 when I went there with a work colleague who was preparing to move to Cleveland, Ohio.

Two of my visits there were Christmas outings with members of a photography club I belonged to. Except for maybe six visits, I always ordered the Timballo (pictured above right), the best layered lasagna I've ever had. Frankly, it's why I kept coming back. And yes, I had the Timballo on Tuesday, when Lee Ann and I went for our last suppers there. Lee Ann had the parmesan breaded grouper (left), and we shared an appetizer of fried calamari and red sauce (below right).

The pictures you see here of the Milano Inn were taken with an iPhone 6s Plus on that last visit. I've been there quite a few times on a weekday in the early evening and never had trouble getting a table without a reservation, but not this time. Well-wishers are coming in droves -- even during the week -- to squeeze in their last visits before 8 p.m. Dec. 31, when the eatery closes its doors for the last time.

We got there around 4:30 p.m., and they said they had nothing available in the main dining rooms until 7:45 or thereabouts ... unless I was willing to dine at the bar or one of the two high-top tables for two in the compact bar area. We were willing to do that (and, on that night, Lee Ann's birthday, we also were hungry, so that's what we did).

Above and below: Decorations greeting visitors during the holidays. The couple pictured in the wall art above are Leo and Sondra LaGrotte, who bought the restaurant in 1981. The LaGrottes' daughters Tina and Gina took over the restaurant after their father died in 2007. A Milano Inn employee told us that Mrs. LaGrotte still visits the restaurant on occasion.  

We chatted briefly with the ladies in the picture above. They sat at the bar; like us, they most likely were not expecting a crowded house on a weekday. They were in a party of three, two of whom (including the one at left in the photo) said they had worked at the Milano Inn at some point. They made a point to do a bit of what I did -- take pictures -- before leaving. Below is a cut of the artsy bar ceiling. 

The Milano Inn menus (above) in its last days; these aren't nearly as elegant as the menus the restaurant diners perused before this year. Below is the first dining area as you enter the restaurant, and this view is from the bar. They couldn't seat us at any of these unoccupied tables because they were reserved for diners who would start trickling in around 5 p.m., a half-hour after we got there.

Above: Immediately adjacent to our table in the bar was this staircase, which leads to an upstairs banquet and dining area. I was up there once -- with a photo club holiday outing about five years ago or so. The club also was seated at a table in the room pictured below for a Christmas outing the previous year. And yes, I had the Timballo both times.

Above: The lower-level large-party dining room, which looked like it was set up for a big gathering that evening. The party hadn't arrived by the time we left. 

Above: This caricature greets guests headed to the upstairs dining area, but it was only about 10 yards or so from our table. 

Above and below: Two views of the outdoor seating area (used during warm weather, of course) and the bocce courts, where I believe the Milano Inn hosted bocce competitions. 

The walkway to the restaurant (above) from the north parking lot, which is adjacent to Angelo's Inc. salvage grocery store, a property that the LaGrotte sisters also own. 
Below, another view of the bocce courts. 

Above: After shooting the above pictures outside the restaurant along College Avenue, I turned to the northwest and caught this setting sun colorization of the Indianapolis skyline. 

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