Rick Lopez knows Italian food. We've known that ever since his first run at La Tavola-in Powell more than 15 years ago. There was a second permutation on Riverside Drive for a while, and then he went a bit sideways with Knead in the Short North (solid comfort food, but not his best). Lucky for us, Lopez has returned to his Italian roots, and he is back in top form at this neighborhood spot in Grandview.
As with the original La Tavola, simplicity is key-take great, seasonal (often local) food and let it shine. Tomato season's insalata caprese, done with just great tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, basil and excellent olive oil, is a perfect example. Likewise, pastas, gnocchi, pizza and risotto are straightforward. Soft gnocchi come topped with lively marinara or just butter and Parmesan; pizza with caramelized onion, prosciutto and a touch of pungent Gorgonzola cheese. The restaurant's substantial house-made bread works well to sop up pasta sauces. Even desserts, like the sharply flavored lemon tart, are simple and forthright. Both the bread and desserts are the work of Lopez's wife Krista, who sometimes graces the front of the house as well.
The space is simple-plain wood tables, a tile floor and black-and-white family photos on wallpapered walls. If you don't mind the company of strangers, you may choose to be seated at one of the communal picnic-type tables or at the chef's counter facing the open kitchen (see below). Another reason we can't wait to return: the enthusiastic service, which was some of the finest we experienced all year.
More often than not, chef Rick Lopez immediately greets newcomers to La Tavola's six-seat chef's counter, which provides a close-up view of the kitchen in action. Sure, there's some neck-straining involved to see the blackboard menu of specials above, but the risk of toppling backward is worth it. At the counter you learn things like the meaning of strozzapreti (it loosely translates to "priest-strangler" pasta and you should order it), or the story behind the kitchen's Elvis bust. (Lopez is a fan.) Watching the chef furiously coating pasta in a pan is always great entertainment when you're not talking to your countermates and ogling over each others' dishes. It's the best seat in the house.