La Scala Doesn't Have Caruso but It Sings Nonetheless
Little Italy: The tourists still go nuts for it, the rest of us kvetch about it. Too pricey. Too pretentious. Overrated. And don't get us started on the parking.
But I recall, albeit dimly, Little Italy's glory days. My grandfather's family was large and spread out between Baltimore and Washington. Family-reunion clubs were big in those days, and ours liked nothing better than to meet and eat in a place called Maria's. I remember Maria herself--colorful in peasant skirt and blouse and fringed shawl, with a flower tucked behind one ear--stopping by our long table to bestow a few words on my great-uncle Jack, the patriarch. I don't remember any of the dishes except the one my grandmother always ordered: spaghetti Caruso, pasta with red sauce, mushrooms, and chicken livers, created for the popular tenor Enrico Caruso.
These days you don't find spaghetti Caruso on the menus in Little Italy, but a neighborhood feeling persists. People live here. When the weather warms up, they sit on the stoop or claim a patch of sidewalk. It's still possible, though not easy, to find an eatery that serves the essential southern Italian repertoire with a down-to-earth style at prices almost as welcoming as the staff. We made this happy discovery--C.C. and I, with our friends Collin and Raquel--on a recent Sunday night at La Scala.
The hostess directs us upstairs to a long, narrow dining room with archways and pale yellow walls. A mural depicts the town of Bafia, in Sicily, where owner/chef Nino Germano's father, Mico, comes from. Brandon, our young server, mixes bits of lore about the host family into his smoothly efficient attentions, which begin with the delivery of warm, crusty bread, seasoned olive oil, and a plate of green beans and new potatoes in vinaigrette, unusual and hearty. So hearty, in fact, that we decide to share only two appetizers among the four of us. We select both from the night's specials, and we select well.
Polenta with crab meat, a seeming extravagance at $10.95, is worth every cent. Three slices of grilled polenta are topped with a creamy sauce studded with lump crab--a perfect pairing of plain and fancy that quickly disappears as it makes the rounds of our table. Those with no shame--Raquel and I--spoon up the remaining sauce. Brandon describes to us the special salad, a grilled Caesar ($7.95). Half a head of romaine is brushed with oil, then grilled 10 to 15 seconds on all sides, before receiving its topping of Caesar dressing, crusty croutons, and shavings of Parmesan. Once we get past the weirdness of warm salad, we all enjoy it a lot.
Our entrées range from pasta to veal to seafood, and, with the exception of Collin's selection of a special, grilled shrimp Trapanese ($22.95), all are decently priced by Little Italy standards. The shrimp is worth the price bump--five enormous grilled crustaceans, firm and flavorful, nestled in a bed of rigatoni and coated with an almond pesto sauce, an interesting (and successful) alternative to the usual pine-nut version.
The offerings from the everyday menu don't quite measure up to the specials' standards, which is to say they are merely very good rather than outright spectacular. Raquel's potato gnocchi della casa ($13.95) comes with a choice of marinara, pesto, or cream sauce; quite sensibly, from a cholesterol standpoint, she chooses the first. Light, simple, and fresh, the marinara makes a good foil for the big serving of the little dumplings, which are pretty light themselves, as dumplings go. My selection, penne with spinach ($14.95), is more intriguing in theory than in practice. Cubes of tomato, chunks of goat cheese, and specks of spinach cling to the al dente pasta. A simple dish, solid, but it could use more than garlic to give it some zip.
C.C., who's experienced a run of mediocre meals on our outings lately, comes up a winner with her veal francese ($16.95), thin, tender medallions dipped in egg batter and gently sautéed. The sauce, lemony and light, showcases the meat's quality. A side of penne marinara supplies bulk. C.C. sighs contentedly between forkfuls.
Full as we are, Brandon cons us into ordering cannoli ($5.50). According to our young friend, Nino's mother makes the shells and the custard fillings (lemon, chocolate, hazelnut, or mocha). Mama is teaching Nino the ways of cannoli, Brandon says, but hasn't yet entrusted him with the secrets of the flavored fillings. And since Nino's parents spend half the year in Sicily, cannoli is available only in the six months they spend stateside. At least, that's what Brandon tells us. But we don't care if his tongue was in cheek, as ours are hanging out of our mouths for one more taste of the lemon and the chocolate cannolis. The flavors are smooth, not too sweet, and creamy. Even the shells are good: thin, crispy, a lovely dark brown.
It's a different Little Italy today, but La Scala's menu proudly proclaims that Nino will be happy to accommodate special requests. I think about spaghetti Caruso. If there's a heaven, I'm sure my grandmother and the great Enrico Caruso are sharing a plate right now.