Just Like Mom Used to Make

By
From the July 2014 edition

Rick and Krista Lopez’s La Tavola tries to put the family dinner table back at the center of customers’ lives.

The dinner table was an unshakable constant in my childhood and adolescence. No matter what else was happening, we would meet at the table for a meal every night, at the Midwest-appropriate time of 5:30 p.m., just as Peter Jennings was starting his nightly news report. Dinner might be humble, or it might be elaborate, like a slow-simmered beef curry with a rainbow of condiments. I don’t know how they managed that schedule so precisely, but my parents made this nightly ritual a priority.

La Tavola (its third incarnation, actually) is Rick and Krista Lopez’s tribute to that dying tradition of family dining. It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that families are being encouraged to eat home-style Italian food at a restaurant, rather than at home. The fact is, the art of home cooking is being lost as we turn to convenience foods and prefer spending precious time away from work with family and friends, rather than at the stove. It’s no accident the restaurant is decorated to look like a home dining room, complete with kitschy grandma wallpaper and cozy wall art. The communal table at the front of the room is another sign: Bring the extended family. On Sunday nights, La Tavola serves Sunday Supper, priced to please bellies and wallets.

Lopez closed his local-and-sustainable-diner concept Knead earlier this year to return to his passion for Italian cooking. Some of the same problems that plagued Knead—inconsistent service, hit-and-miss food—have translated to La Tavola. But, also like Knead, there are moments of brilliance, powerful flavor memories, lingering forkfuls of comfort.

Lopez is a chef with a lot of heart. His eyes sparkle when he talks about coaxing a polenta into a creamy puddle. He can wax poetic about chicken. This is someone who pours his soul into every step of the cooking process, from trimming the baby artichokes that pop up in a gnocchi dish to baking the pitch-perfect bread that arrives at tables in a charming paper bag. The experience at La Tavola is deeply personal, and that means it can also be imperfect. Just like—shhh—Mom’s cooking was.

La Tavola’s menu is sectioned into Antipasti (salads, appetizers, soup), Pizza, Primi Piatti (pastas), Secondi Piatti (protein-focused entrees), Contorni (side dishes) and Desserts. In theory, and in some places in Italy, you would order a primi and a secondi, in addition to an antipasto. In reality, you would burst at the seams at most places and, disappointingly, at La Tavola. Portion sizes are far larger than the menu suggests by its organization.

During one visit, I ordered a special Calabrian Calamari appetizer ($9)—sautéed rings in a sassy tomato and pepper sauce with two slabs of charred bread—and followed it up with a Quattro Stagioni (“four seasons”) pizza ($12 small, $23 large).

The squid was more than enough for dinner on its own, so there was room only for a couple pieces of the small pizza. That, as it turned out, was no loss, because the pizza was the one forgettable thing we ate at La Tavola. The crust was uniformly soft and colorless, lacking any crunch or chew. The concept of a four seasons pizza is appealing—each quadrant of the pizza contains a different topping representing a season. But even the shiitake mushrooms, tomato, asparagus and prosciutto couldn’t wake up this tired disc of dough.

When you visit, don’t miss the specials menu (you might have to seek it out yourself; on two visits, our server didn’t mention it). Item for item, it yielded some of the best food we tried at La Tavola, including Lopez’s dreamy risotto, which is cooked to order. It is well worth the 25- to 30-minute wait. The one we tried was peppered with peas and prosciutto, and contained an indulgent amount of sharp Parmesan cheese. We also savored a beef short-rib ragu ($24) with fat ribbons of pappardelle, which Lopez, naturally, makes from scratch.

Pasta is an excellent bet across the board. Tortelloni En Brodo ($16 single portion, $30 family-style) is a must-try. Fat bellies of tortelloni are filled with a flavorful mix of organic chicken, herbs, Parmigiano-Reggiano, prosciutto, pork and greens, and the bowl around them is filled with an intoxicating broth. Gnocchi al Forno ($17 single portion, $32 family-style), in contrast, lacked subtlety—if molten baked pasta and cheese are your thing, go for it. But for us, the primary sensations were of saltiness and fattiness.

Not that you have to eat heavy food at La Tavola. A baby kale salad ($6) is an appetite-stimulating starter, with grapes, sliced almonds and salty ricotta salata. Prosciutto Crostini ($12) is nice to share among four people—four thick slices of charred bread arrive piled with ribbons of prosciutto di Parma. Fig honey at the center of our plate was a miss; it didn’t elevate either the excellent bread or charcuterie. Fish dishes, which change daily, also proved light and season-appropriate; in one, a filet of cod ($22) was placed atop a creamy puddle of polenta and beneath a zesty tomato sauce.

On our last visit, we were helped by a boisterous, eager server who raved about the Saltimbocca La Tavola ($25 single portion, $48 family-style), a pounded-thin filet of veal tenderloin breaded and pan fried, topped with prosciutto and fontina fontal cheese and served over polenta with Marsala sauce. Lopez has a tendency to season sauces and dressings on the acidic side—the dressing on the kale salad made us pucker a bit. The Marsala sauce was too assertive in that same way, and it overwhelmed the delicate flavor of the meat. A side of asparagus was drenched in salt. And the polenta, billed as creamy, was uncharacteristically firm. Chalk this one up to new-restaurant growing pains?

Looking around the dining room at La Tavola on each of our three visits, it’s clear that the Lopezes are reaching their target audience—kids tottered around the dining room, multiple generations of families gathered at tables, couples met for post-workday meals. The restaurant seems to be doing quite a bit of carry-out business, too, so you can take your family-style meal home to your own dining room table.

If you do eat in, though, go for the counter seating directly in front of the kitchen. From there, you’ll see Lopez himself, and that’s exactly the kind of closeness he’s looking for with his customers. In their own way, they’re family, too.