I enjoy La Tavola because, unlike many Italian restaurants, its menu is not pork or fish centric. Instead, chef-owner Rick Lopez pushes his own potato gnocchi, made from his grandmother's recipe. It's served three ways-with marinara, butter and parm and al forno, or baked with white wine, cheese and veggies-and all are vegetarian friendly.

I'm the kind of person who's already thinking dinner during breakfast-already mapping the coming weekend's bar crawl the Monday beforehand. Not surprisingly, when a close friend recently visited for a long weekend, I readied a long list of potential bars and restaurants to stop by. So, that Saturday night, when both our stomachs were grumbling, I put the question to him: "What sounds good?" His answer: "Some hearty, red-sauce pasta." I didn't even need to check my list; La Tavola in Grandview was the clear winner.

As roommates in college, my friend and I ate plenty of lousy campus meals together. The food, of course, was never as important as the conversations and laughs we'd share. But as soon as we took seats at La Tavola's affectionately dubbed "chef's counter"-where you can watch chef-owner Rick Lopez and his team prep dish after dish of Italian fare-we knew we were in for a treat.

Our eyes lit up when our server welcomed us with complimentary Mediterranean-style farro salads and a thorough rundown of the wine list. My friend opted for a Guinness, and our server wowed again by properly pouring the stout in two-step fashion. We were all smiles and had yet to read the dinner menu.

I enjoy La Tavola because, unlike many Italian restaurants, its menu is not pork or fish centric. Instead, Lopez pushes his own potato gnocchi, made from his grandmother's recipe. It's served three ways: with marinara, butter and parm and al forno, or baked with white wine, cheese and veggies. All three are vegetarian friendly. And this night, the sized-to-share marinara ($18) didn't disappoint. The dumplings were thick and chewy with garlicky and potato flavors. The house sauce, in contrast, was sweet and delicate. We asked for a second round of bread (served warmed and fluffy) to mop up every last drop.

"[The gnocchi] was my gateway to Italian cooking," says Lopez, who, from his post behind the stove, made small talk throughout our dinner. "People say the portions are filling, but most always finish every bite. It's familiar and satisfies that hearty, cheesy desire."

The restaurant-with its wooden floors and quirky, retro wallpapering-is cozy and, at times, a little rowdy. (A group of 12 was dining behind us this night.) But I could tell the mood put my friend at ease. It's just like we were hanging out in Lopez's kitchen.