Changing directions

Restaurant: La Tavola has given up its innovative ways for a more traditional approach

Sunday Gourmet

August 08, 1999|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

In the two years since La Tavola opened, owner Piero Conti seems to have come to the conclusion that tradition is valued more in Little Italy restaurants than innovation. And I suppose he's right.

In the beginning La Tavola was amazing, starting with the yellow exterior and purple door. Inside looked more tropical than Italian, with its blue ceiling, potted palms, hydrangeas and gauzy purple hangings.

The concept of the menu was unusual, too. All first courses cost $5. Pastas were $11. Entrees cost either $13 or $15. Simple. Neat.

Not that I would have been impressed if the food wasn't good, but it was. The specialties were homemade pastas and fresh grilled fish. Obviously at these prices Conti wasn't going to be offering a veal chop, but that was OK.

In another part of the city this place might have succeeded, been embraced even, but in Little Italy -- no matter how much people complain that you can't tell the restaurants apart -- most diners seem to want a classic southern Italian eatery. La Tavola was a bit too radical.

So Conti redecorated from top to bottom, brought in a new chef from Italy (Carlo Giotti), and changed the whole concept of the menu. The decor is more subdued, the place is now more a restaurant than a trattoria, and prices -- needless to say -- are higher.

But I don't want to sound too negative. There is still much to like here.

A "lobster bisque" is actually a lobster soup; no cream is involved. The delicate tomato-based broth with slivers of vegetables delivers full-bodied flavor, and it's absolutely chock-full of lobster meat.

Follow it with tender homemade ravioloni, plump with crab meat and bathed in a bit of buttery sauce, and you've got yourself quite a meal.

Bruschetta Tavola sports a winning combination of chopped fresh tomatoes, artichoke hearts, mozzarella and basil on grilled garlic bread. The chef's version of carpaccio adds thin crescents of celery to raw beef and Parmesan shavings for extra texture; a tart vinaigrette acts as dressing for both the beef and its bed of greens.

La Tavola's insalata di mare is particularly refreshing on a hot summer night. The salad of chopped shrimp, mussels, clams, scallops and squid is nestled in a radicchio leaf and drizzled with an orange-flavored olive oil.

If you like your tuna rare, you have to ask for it that way here; otherwise it comes a bit on the dry side. But its fresh flavor stands up well under a sauce of tomatoes, sliced green olives and capers.

On the downside, duck breast with honey and aromatic herbs, which sounds wonderful, comes sliced too thick to be appealing, and it's tough as well. A veal dish pairs portobello mushrooms with tender scaloppine, but its cream sauce has little discernible flavor.

More interest could be shown in how vegetables complement the meat or fish; the same carrots, green beans and roast potatoes showed up on all our plates.

Of our desserts, only one isn't a hit. It's described on the menu as "apple syrup with sliced apples." It turns out to be sliced apples in the shape of a tart, and it's badly in need of some pastry.

Otherwise, desserts are inventive and good. Thin rectangles of flan are topped with a crisp golden web of spun sugar. A smooth, creamy chocolate mousse comes arranged in a crisp cookie shell, which adds a bit of crunch. Best of all is the zuccotto, an ice cream bombe with a layer of chocolate mousse and sponge cake -- but it should have been taken out of the freezer earlier than it was and allowed to soften a bit.

La Tavola's renovated dining room is pleasant and unremarkable; the decorators have done the best they could with one large room and a dropped ceiling. As for service, it's unremarkable, too, and that's how I like it. The waiters are well-meaning and attentive, but unobtrusive. The food gets to the table on time, and water glasses are refilled. What more could you ask?

LA TAVOLA

Food: ** 1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Where: 248 Albemarle St.

Hours: Open every day for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $6-$8; main courses, $12-$21

Call: 410-685-1859

Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

Pub Date: 08/17/99

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