Proof That Not All Little Italy Restaurants Are Created Equal
The two prevailing misconceptions about Baltimore: The people are friendly (try working in customer service for a day), and all the restaurants in Little Italy are the same--pasta houses where meatballs grow on the banks of red-sauce streams. In fact, there's more diversity within the several blocks that define Little Italy than you've been led to believe, and even those so-called pasta houses are capable of giving you a satisfying, pleasurable meal.
But picture this: You're strolling around in the Inner Harbor when you're approached by a couple of tourists. Their car has been towed and now they're stranded, with no way back to the Eastern Shore. They're scamming liars, but the next couple is simply asking where to get a good meal in Little Italy. It's no use pigeonholing them--the world's fussiest epicure sometimes has straw between his teeth. Still, while you're loath to recommend someplace too expensive, you're wanting them to go somewhere that shows off the neighborhood and the city to its best advantage--someplace charming but not too informal, where the food is both accessible and polished.
La Tavola is the answer. This slightly off-the-main-drag restaurant has established itself as a perfectly companionable choice for diners looking for a little innovation, skillful preparations, and a well-dressed but relaxed atmosphere with some cash left over to get back to whatever shore they came from.
The main dining area downstairs illustrates how much a rectangular drop-ceilinged room can benefit from good lighting and other attentive details. The space manages to be both earthy and a little elegant, with large-scale sepia images painted on the whitewashed exposed brick walls. Maybe I wouldn't propose marriage in this dining room, but it's a pretty enough place to dump someone properly.
There's pride taken here in making everything on the premises from scratch, including the nine or so selections of pastas that serve as La Tavola's calling card. The balance of the menu comprises preparations involving seafood, veal, and chicken, and not much else, which suggests to me not so much a limited range as shrewd kitchen management, if not a passionate vision.
The fettuccine paglia e fieno alla romana ($14.50) swirls green and white fettuccine with shallots, mushrooms, sweet peas, and perhaps not enough shredded prosciutto in a cream sauce. This arrived, as did all of our entrées, piping hot. The not-cloying sauce had been worked through the pasta, not ladled on top, entirely avoiding soupiness and gloppiness. It's recommended. Our other pasta choice, agnolotti (a kind of ravioli, literally "priests' caps) alla romana ($15), filled a dozen or so large shells with ricotta cheese and finely chopped spinach in a similarly appealing cream sauce. Another well-wrought success--neither cream-based dish rendered its partaker sluggish or logy. Those looking for zestier preparations should know that capers, garlic, kalamata olives, and red peppers show up in other pasta offerings.
Some of this piquancy showed up in a seafood pasta dish, linguine allo scoglio ($23), which tossed fresh shrimp and scallops with pasta in a spicy tomato sauce, ringed by healthy mussels and clams. Nothing revolutionary here, just a solidly assembled steaming bowlful of good stuff. Canestrelli con shiitake teamed grilled scallops with shiitake mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, pine nuts, lemon zest, and rosemary to handsome, rustic effect. However, I found that too much rosemary overwhelmed the natural sweetness of the scallops. Points given for invention and assertiveness, though.
La Tavola's veal parmigiana ($20.50) succeeded with a lightness to the breading, a delicacy about the fresh cheese, and a Champagne touch to the tomato sauce, which combined to preserve the vealness of the meat. Accompanying mushrooms and fingerling potatoes were perfectly handled.
We took our waitress' advice and let the kitchen assemble sharable platters of both appetizers and desserts. (This gesture ended up costing us nothing more--or less--than the cost of the items had they been ordered individually, but it always helps to check first. The "appetizers for the table" is used by other restaurants as a major bill-buster.) Among the appetizers, we most liked the grilled portobellos ($7), which had just enough balsamic flavor to arouse the appetite without making our lips pucker, and the bruschetta della tavola ($6.50), which ladled basil-flecked chopped tomatoes over manageably chewy garlic bread. (For the record: "Bruschetta" refers to the bread; the stuff on top is "bruschetta topping".)
The centerpiece of the dessert production, which also included pop-'em-sized profiteroles ($5.50) and slices of creamy tiramisu ($5.50), was the tartuffo all cocco--layered espresso and vanilla gelati topped with espresso infused melted chocolate ($6). It's kind of ridiculous, and you must be sure to have some.