Our annual look at the essential restaurants illuminating the city's dining scene

When Italian food is terrific, like it is at La Tavola, there is a beautiful, if deceptive, simplicity to the cuisine. For example, pasta noodles seem like relatively simple things until you try making them yourself.

Chef Rick Lopez named this restaurant La Tavola—which simply means “the table” in Italian—knowing that its unpretentious wooden tables and slanted booths aren't as simple as they might seem, either. Like the many outstanding pastas here, they're highly polished creations handmade by Lopez and his La Tavola team.

This handsome, understated furniture joins family photographs, cheery floral wallpaper and a friendly, focused staff in a welcoming and markedly individual establishment with an ingredient-driven cuisine founded on classic techniques tweaked with inspired flourishes.

Unlike many restaurants with veteran all-star chefs, Lopez himself is almost always working in the open kitchen, smiling near a bust of Elvis, cooking up a storm with meticulously sourced and often local ingredients, and holding court with regulars enjoying the action from a small nearby counter.

Above the chef's counter are chalkboards that announce the all-important daily specials, which include by-the-glass selections from the standout all-Italian wine list. Other recent specials: an elegant local beet salad elevated by Calabrian chili offset by fresh mint, lemony house-whipped ricotta that dances on your tongue and smoked sea salt; and lovely, supple pappardelle tossed with chopped prosciutto sautéed with sweet local zucchini, peppers, eggplant, corn, herbs and just enough white wine for a balancing acidic counterpoint.

Staples from the regular menu include a bold kale Caesar salad with a fried local- farm egg; pillowy gnocchi that's actually potato-based; risottos worth waiting for; plus lively lemon tarts and the best tiramisu in town, made by the restaurant's secret weapon: Krista Lopez, La Tavola's co-owner, baker and Rick's life partner.

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Did you know?

While confoundingly youthful, chef-owner Rick Lopez, far left, has long and deep local restaurant roots that stretch through two previous La Tavolas, Knead, Crescendo, Tapatio and the recently opened Lupo in Upper Arlington.