Sometimes moving to larger quarters is the kiss of death for a restaurant. Not so for La Scala, which seems to be doing very well in its new location on Eastern Avenue, still in Little Italy. (It moved from rented space on High Street.)
The restaurant, which is small compared with some of the bigger names in Little Italy, has a bar and a dozen or so tables downstairs. There's another dining room upstairs. The rooms have a vaguely Mediterranean air, with sunny, sponge-painted walls, exposed brick, charming sconces and rustic murals. The night we were there, unfortunately, only the downstairs was open and the only "no smoking" seating was a table not far enough away from the bar. As nonsmokers know, this doesn't work once a customer at the bar lights up.
La Scala seemed unexpectedly busy this evening. Many of the tables were filled, but there seemed to be only one waiter. He was helped by a busboy, and at several points a sous chef from the kitchen pitched in. They did their best, and the waiter managed to stay unflustered, but the service could have been smoother.
These are logistic problems, and probably not typical. The important thing is that you'll end up getting a good and generously portioned meal at La Scala. By generously portioned I mean, for instance, that the antipasto for two is easily enough for four with the restaurant's fabulous bread. The colorful plate is covered with prosciutto, Genoa salami, salty olives, roasted red peppers, cheeses and greens.
Likewise, a specialty of the house, grilled Caesar salad, is a hefty appetizer even when you have it divided in two: a whole head of Romaine lettuce, gently charred and warm, with a creamy Caesar dressing, croutons and lots of freshly grated cheese.
Start with the polenta alla griglia and you won't want to share. The rectangles of crisp-edged cornmeal are given elevated status with porcini mushrooms and bits of pancetta in a suave cognac sauce.
For entrees, you can be happy with something as simple as penne in a blush pink tomato vodka sauce, rich with cream and an extra kick of Tabasco sauce. Actually, simplest is best here, as is so often the case. A special, Chicken Baltimore, had beautiful ingredients: skinless, boneless chicken breasts, enormous lumps of crab, and two jumbo shrimp entwined together. Their butter sauce worked perfectly, but I saw no reason for the four pale slices of winter tomato or the melted mozzarella on top.
On the other hand, a grilled whole rockfish was practically flawless. The moist, sweet flesh was sauced with olive oil and lemon. If you don't want the trouble of filleting it for yourself, your waiter will do it for you at tableside. A butterflied veal chop was gently charred and wonderfully tender. It was arranged jauntily on the plate, with wild mushrooms spilling down its sides and a robust bordelaise lapping at its edges.
If I had one complaint to make about La Scala's food, it would be the kitchen's indifference to vegetables. Dinners come with penne in marinara sauce; if you want greenery, order a salad.
While our entrees were almost exclusively from the list of specials -- with the exception of the pasta -- the regular menu has plenty on it to please. It tends to the traditional. La Scala is a good place to get a moderately priced supper of Italian comfort food, if you can stay away from the several veal chops and lobster dishes. (The pasta and chicken dishes are mostly under $15.)
Desserts are made in house -- at least the delicate tiramisu, profiteroles filled with whipped cream and iced with chocolate, and cannoli stuffed with lemon-scented cream instead of ricotta cheese. All in all, a satisfying meal. Just make sure that if you're a nonsmoker you insist on a table upstairs.
Service: ** 1/2
Atmosphere: ** 1/2
Where: 1012 Eastern Ave.
Hours: Open for dinner every night
Prices: Appetizers, $5.95-$13.95; main courses, $11.95-$29.95
Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *