Sophisticated yet casual, traditional yet contemporary, La Tavola manages a rare feat: It's a fine dining establishment with the soul of a mom-and-pop eatery. In this bright and peppy place with a busy open kitchen, fanciful green-and-yellow wallpaper plays off handmade wooden booths, and ingredients and techniques meet at stellar heights. Give credit for this aesthetic to chef Rick Lopez and wife/baker Krista, whose creations—from entrées to appetizers, breads to desserts—are made from scratch daily. Other distinguishing attributes include a terrific Italian wine selection, two-course, $15, “Sunday Supper” bargains and fantastic chalkboard specials, like bruschetta, actually worth ordering, plus outstanding seafood dishes.

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Difference-Maker: Pasta Made by Hand

Like a magician who's practiced a card trick for years in the dark to master it, La Tavola chef-owner Rick Lopez flicks his wrist over a gnocchi roller, and in a half-second flash of nimble fingers, he transforms a dough blob into a beautiful piece of ridged, potato-based pasta. This is no illusion, though, as a nibble of the delicious and supple dumpling immediately proves. “The key to great gnocchi—I need them light as clouds—is less flour,” Lopez says. To achieve this texture, he roasts a load of spuds, rices them and dries them out for about 24 hours. Then he adds local eggs, salt and imported Italian “00” flour—how much depends on factors like humidity because, as Lopez explains, “You do handmade pasta by feel.” After cooking just until they bob to the surface of boiling water, Lopez immediately marries the gnocchi to house tomato sauce or European-style butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. In the rich Gnocchi al Forno, he bakes them with artichokes and herbs in a wine-cream-cheese sauce. In addition to lovely gnocchi, Lopez—a gadget geek—makes several other great pastas, like duck-filled agnolotti; fat ribbons of saffron-pappardelle sliced with “the Ferrari” of pasta-cutters (it's brass-wheeled) for a charred octopus dish; and semolina-fortified dough passed through a device with guitar strings to create delectable prosciutto-wrapped fettuccine “alla chitarra” with black pepper, garlic and cream.