Chef-partner Lenny Messina at Lola in Great Neck.

Chef-partner Lenny Messina at Lola in Great Neck. Credit: Newsday/Erica Marcus

Boss, mentor, best friend — that’s what Lenny Messina lost when Michael Ginor died in November.

Ginor’s Great Neck spot, Lola (a fixture on Newsday’s Top 100) was three years old when, in 2012, he hired a 21-year-old Messina as a salad cook. The two clicked, and within two years, Messina was running the kitchen and was a partner in the restaurant.

“I’ve been running the restaurant for a hard six years,” Messina said, “the kitchen, the staffing, the payroll — but I bounced everything off Michael. We would talk six, eight times a day.”

The new spring menu that will launch in mid-April is the first one Ginor didn’t weigh in on. “I’m a little nervous,” Messina admitted. “There might be this perception that this represents some departure from what Michael would have done. But I’ve been in charge of the menus for a long time and never put anything on there that he wouldn’t like — and I still wouldn’t.”

That said, Messina is ushering in a new emphasis on vegetables.  The new menu features a salad of gem lettuce, toasted sesame and Medjool dates with a harissa-tahini dressing; roast eggplant Baladi with sesame yogurt, preserved lemon and pomegranate seeds; and whipped sheep’s milk feta with buttermilk, pistachio and honey. Lola’s vaunted hummus will now be available with Hudson Valley duck chorizo and smoked chili.

Whipped feta with pistachio, spicy gem lettuce salad and hummus...

Whipped feta with pistachio, spicy gem lettuce salad and hummus with duck chorizo at Lola in Great Neck. Credit: Newsday/Erica Marcus

Messina will also be able to shed his role as Protector of Mediterranean Flavors. Originally, Lola was a fine-dining spot whose menu trotted all over the globe — as, indeed, did Ginor and his palate. But in 2015, the two men “made a pact” to transform their spot into a Mediterranean restaurant serving Mediterranean food.

Years later, Messina was still teasing Ginor about the time the latter swept in with an idea for a new dish. “Where’s the gochujang?” Ginor demanded, referring to the fermented Korean chili paste. Messina reminded him of “the pact.” Ginor’s response? “What kind of Mediterranean restaurant doesn’t have gochujang?”

Globe-trotting was also a professional obligation for Ginor. He attended food festivals all over the world to promote his other business, Hudson Valley Foie Gras. He added even more travel to his schedule a few years ago when he joined Ironman competitions. (He was competing in Israel when he had a fatal heart attack.)

Messina is also involved in the farm upstate where, in addition to raising ducks and chickens, there is a growing business that creates private-label stocks, sauces and condiments for famous chefs.

Because the restaurant must function in his absence, Messina has developed a deep bench. “Especially when Michael died, this crew really stepped up to the plate so I could do what I needed to at the farm,” he said, noting in particular the contributions of general manager Marissa Pollina, chef de cuisine Jose Ferman, sous chef Greg Schultz and pastry chef Jill Brochu.

His team has inspired him to evolve the restaurant. "These people are only going to work here as long as they can continue to grow,” he said, “and I feel an obligation to find a way to expand Lola, whether it’s a bigger space or another space.”

For now, Messina is giving the dining room a refresh with new lighting and new paintings and, overall, a brighter look.

“I haven’t fully sorted out the loss,” he said, “and I want to be crystal clear about any major moves before I do anything. But I am motivated by his legacy to push to the next level.”

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