La Tavola Trattoria opened a year ago in a space that had been Little Talia, North End and other Italian restaurants in the last two decades, part of the Hertel Avenue red-sauce brigade. The new owners renovated the place, adding a wood-fired oven, hardwood floors and interiors of exposed brick, Venetian plaster. But besides above-average pizza – blistered and smoke-tinged from the 800-degree oven – there wasn’t much about my meal that seemed different. ¶ The place was nearly full during our dinner, with diners tucking into plates of pasta at the first-floor bar, with the massive masonry oven anchoring the semi-open kitchen on the other side. Stairs lead to the second-floor dining room with more tables, decorated with historic Buffalo streetscapes and a big television showing a black-and-white movie from before my time.
The menu is not particularly long, with eight entrees, seven pizzas, and a pick-your-pasta selection with four types of macaroni and six sauces to choose from. Our foursome was seated at an upstairs table that looked too small at first glance.
We ordered a Calabrese pizza ($14), wood-fired rosemary wings ($7), lobster bisque ($4), a special lamb arancini appetizer ($6) and a large Caesar salad ($10). We asked for entrees of eggplant Parmesan ($14), New Orleans pasta ($18), chicken piccata ($16) and pizziola filet of beef ($25).
First a small loaf of warm, crusty bread arrived, speckled with sesame seeds and dusted with grated cheese. It had been sliced, but not all the way through, so we tore it apart with our hands, happy to have something to munch on as we waited.
The wings arrived appealingly charred at the edges from the oven’s intense heat. There wasn’t much rosemary in their bouquet, but they were decently moist roasted chicken digits, tasty with a squeeze of the accompanying lemon.
I’d mentioned we would share the bisque. When our server brought the bowl, she also brought a small bowl for each of us so we could do so with decorum. The soup was darker than usual, with a toasty note, as if from a roux base. There was no lobster meat I could find, but it did taste like lobster.
The softball-sized lamb arancini, coddled in tomato sauce, had a comfy jacket of fried rice and breadcrumbs. Loosened with a touch of goat cheese, it satisfied my lamb hankering despite an unappealing mushiness. The Caesar salad was made of chopped romaine and copious creamy dressing, sprinkled with cheese coarse black pepper. Here too, a squeeze of lemon helped brighten its flavor.
The pizza was excellent, with a faintly charred crust, fresh-tasting tomato sauce, and pepperoni curled into dark-rimmed cups. It had been topped with slices of prosciutto after cooking, and a sprinkling of fresh basil leaves. We debated taking some of it home, but before the entrees arrived, it was history.
Trish’s eggplant Parmesan was crumb-covered slices covered in tomato sauce and mozzarella, dusted with grated cheese. After a few bites it tasted more like breadcrumbs than eggplant, and the table’s attention switched to other dishes. Scotty’s piazzola filet was a tender slice of properly cooked beef in a smoky red bell pepper sauce, and was swiftly dispatched.
Cat’s New Orleans pasta was loaded with shrimp, chicken, sausage and mushrooms in a cream sauce, served over linguini and topped with a hearty amount of grated cheese. It packed a welcome hit of chile spice, but the salt level brought to mind how close New Orleans is to the Gulf of Mexico. We stopped eating it.
My chicken piccata was another story; it was my favorite plate of the evening. It was a rousing version, punched up with vinegary, spicy peppers along with the usual capers in the lemon-butter sauce. The chicken wasn’t dry, and there was plenty of sauce. The risotto served with the chicken and other entrees was plenty cheesy but slightly undercooked.
As we ate, we experienced gusts of din but table conversation continued after a nearby table cleared out. Our server was excellent, managing the flow of plates on and off the tiny eating surface as deftly as an air traffic controller. Despite being busy, she swapped silverware and took a moment to ask if there was any problem with the food when she noticed that we’d left the eggplant and salty pasta unfinished, and abandoned the leftovers.
She even got us an extra cannoli shell for the cannoli dessert ($3), which usually perches three shells on a martini glass of sweetened ricotta with orange. It was a satisfyingly sweet end to the meal. The bread pudding ($3) was packed with so many chocolate chips that was all I could taste. Companions argued you can’t have too much chocolate, but I remain firm in my (minority) position on this issue.
The pizza was satisfying and other dishes showed gusto, but I left feeling that I’ve seen this restaurant before.
La Tavola Trattoria
Wood-fired pizzas, rosemary wings go beyond red-sauce standards at renovated Italian spot.
WHERE: 1458 Hertel Ave. (837-3267, http://latavolatrattoriabuffalo.wordpress.com)
HOURS: 5 to 10 p.m. Monday; noon to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; noon to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday brunch and 2 to 9 p.m. Sunday dinner.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $6-$13; pizzas, $12-$17; entrees, $13-$26.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.