Quaint Little Italy Dining Room Knows How To Handle The Baby Calf
There are regulars at the midlevel Little Italy restaurant La Scala (1012 Eastern Ave.,  783-9209) who know their way around the menu, who are embraced and bussed by owner/chef Nino Germano, and who luxuriate in the cozy downstairs dining room. Energy from the bar and from diners coming and going imbues the first floor with friendly feelings, and customers look to be pleased as punch.
First-timers, especially rubes traveling in big parties, are in for a different experience, which, while mostly pleasurable, has its pitfalls and problems. The upstairs dining rooms, save for a wall-length fresco depicting an Italian village, are kempt but dull, and the décor comes to an odd dead stop at the back wall, in front of which someone has stood up a hinged screen. Service up here felt rushed, and some errant ordering might have been righted if the waiter had had more time to spend at the table.
As for menu navigation, plain common sense should have told new diners that La Scala has areas of strength, absolutely in veal and much so in shellfish, and of weakness, particularly with fish, to which La Scala gives only the scantest of menu attention. Veal gets the top-of-the menu star treatment, in scallops and cutlets, and in spectacular 16-ounce chops, either herbed, or stuffed with prosciutto and fontina cheese. Conversation stops and eyes follow when one of these preparation passes by the table--minds reeling, should have ordered that.
The veal that was ordered, a Marsala ($18.95), delighted with simple rustic flavors and sure technique, deploying buttery scallops of tasty veal, sautéed in a bright and robust wine sauce with rustic mushrooms. The best evening at La Scala, then, might be one where everyone at the table orders veal--or else chicken, which the kitchen works with just as well in very similar preparations. Chicken alla Scala is a light and fresh delight, prepared with a silky flattened piece of juicy white meat, sautéed with artichoke hearts and lump crabmeat in a smartly applied white sauce.
But those who want fish for dinner will be stymied. The menu provides no regular options, only a fish of the day, which turned out to be Chilean sea bass ($19.95), its provenance uncertain. Prepared with pesto and crushed tomatoes, the fish was properly mellow and flaky, the pesto relaxed and fresh. When asked if the kitchen might be husbanding another fish, a snapper en papillote ($26.95) was located. The response was thoughtful, but the results were not, and the skimpy allotment of fish felt like an admonishment to order the damn veal.
Spaghetti alla carbonara ($14.95) turned out to be another unrewarding choice. The other 15 pasta dishes have to be better than this, a milk-soup version of the café classic, nearly absent any pancetta. Even when drained and brought back to the table, it was still school paste.
The starter to get at La Scala is the grilled Caesar ($8.95), which presents smoky just-wilting leaves of fresh romaine dressed in a spiky Parmesan dressing. The bruschetta ($7.95) works well, too--alternating slices of crusty bread topped with goat cheese and a mix of crushed tomatoes with fresh basil and onion.
And on the other end, there are the house's celebrated cannoli ($7.95), their availability still dependent on whether the owner's mother is in Baltimore, stuffed with ricotta flavored with chocolate, hazelnut, or coffee. Diners who can't decide can have one shell stuffed from both ends with two different versions.
If La Scala takes a few visits to master, the rewards appear worth it. The good food was very good and reasonably priced. Smart diners will avoid the upstairs and take their first meals at the bar, where they'll get to know the staff. Someday soon their cheeks will be kissed.