La Tavola, Waterbury


Ryan Lavine

La Tavola, Waterbury
★★1/2 (Very Good-Superior)

Notwithstanding its Hollywoodesque name, Faces was an Italian neighborhood restaurant dear to the hearts of the residents of the Town Plot section of Waterbury. Sorely missed when it closed, the place reopened in 2008 with new owners, a new chef and a more appropriate name, La Tavola, which in Italian means The Table.

Not exactly the news of the century? You'd be surprised. I was, and that's putting it mildly. To summarize my recent visit: I arrived dubious and departed amazed.

At first glance the menu looks same-old, but read between the lines. Ravioli is filled with vermouth-spiked lobster Bolognese. Duck breast is served with farrotto, Sardinia's version of risotto made with spelt. Prosciutto-wrapped figs come with port-soaked blackberries, and the cheese tray includes sheep's milk ricotta with truffle honey. 

Our meal begins with a flourish. "Antipasto for La Tavola" consists of four square white china plates on a tray atop a pedestal, each dish showcasing its wares like crown jewels. Golden-fried risotto balls, piping hot, crispy outside, moist within, flecked with tomato, peas and prosciutto, burst with flavor when we bite into them. Ruby-red roasted sweet red pepper and snowy-white buffalo milk mozzarella taste as beautiful as they look. Plates of asparagus, onion frittata and marinated artichokes complete the quartet. Antipasti can mean everything but the kitchen sink, but here each carefully crafted component is a gem.

The prosciutto-wrapped figs are served as an appetizer. Stuffed with Gorgonzola Dolce  and garnished with fresh blackberries soaked in port, it's wonderful because the cheese is so fine and goes so well with fruit and port wine.

Lobster ricotta ravioli are a triumph. Barely moistened with vermouth, the bland cheese allows the clean, sweet lobster flavor to shine forth in all its sea-clean glory. I could make a meal of these, served as they are with golden chanterelles and braised leeks.

Only the Hudson Valley foie gras falls short. That's what we get for ordering a non-Italian dish. But the menu said that it would be served with crostini and persimmon jam, and persimmons intrigue me. The jam, vibrant yellow-orange and sweet, goes well with the foie gras, but that unfortunately is sliced so thin that searing overcooks it a bit.

In the house-made garganelli, however, we rediscover the Old World at its best in a shallow soup bowl, with wild mushrooms, parmigiana and a creamy sauce scented with truffle oil. Garganelli, a tubular pasta from Emilia-Romagna, is a bit hard to find in these parts and tricky to make, but it holds the sauce beautifully.

Braised veal shank falls from the bone with the touch of a fork as it should. A simple, satisfying dish, it's served with truffle ravioli, butternut squash and leeks.

Rosy-red slices of duck breast are blanketed with a lovely dried-cherry grappa sauce. Alongside is a hefty helping of duck confit with apples and onions, which doesn't work too well. The texture is mushy and the flavor is muddy. We ignore it and enjoy the sliced duck and the farrotto, which has been cooked with Gorgonzola.

The slow-food movement began in Italy, where goodness and flavor have traditionally been cherished over convenience. Short ribs are a case in point. The slower you braise them, the deeper, richer and more satisfying the flavor. La Tavola's short ribs bespeak hours of low heat and many sauce reductions to bring them to perfection-fork-tender, seeped and steeped in a luxuriously satisfying red wine sauce.

Ahi tuna and diver scallops are on the menu, but it's a cold night and roasted salmon with slow-roasted tomato fregula calls out to us. The plate is heaped (a zucchini-and-yellow-squash medley shows up too) but everything on it is healthful and light. The salmon is a bit overcooked for my taste. It's also a tad mushy-farm-raised often is. But "guilt-free" hath its charms, and the pearly beads of fregula add a fillip of novelty.

When it comes to dessert, we're in luck. La Tavola has a pastry chef, Mayra Victoria, whose culinary voice is distinctly her own. Whether she originated the desserts on the menu or dredged them up from some esoteric source, they are at once cozily homey and dashingly different. Their plain-Jane names give little hint of what's in store. Does banana cake grab you? Apple upside-down cake?

But the banana cake is as moist as bread pudding, strewn with homemade caramel corn and garnished with caramelized bananas and crème fraîche ice cream. The apple cake is a financier cake with cajeta. Financiers, called bankers' cakes because they resemble gold bars, are traditionally baked in small rectangular molds. There are many financier recipes but the essential ingredient is browned butter. Strictly speaking, cajeta is caramelized goat's milk, but it's similar to dolce de leche, which is frequently used instead. Chef Victoria's apple cake is rich with browned butter, decorated with cajeta and adorned with marinated walnuts and preserved cherries, topped with a scoop of cinnamon ice cream. Cinnamon donuts, homemade and served with warm spiced apple cider, are less showy but still irresistible. Nutella cake, a bitter chocolate confection so rich a forkful or two invites a swoon, hides in its dark heart a filling of Nutella (the creamy Italian hazelnut-and-cocoa spread) and boasts a crown of vanilla bean gelato.

One thing is certain, La Tavola is a lot more than a neighborhood hangout. Indeed, the food is in a league with Connecticut's iconic Italian greats. If it weren't for the noise, awkward floor plan and uncomfortable seating, it might be sporting more stars.

Later: Researching the subject, I learned that chef-owner Nicola Mancini, a Culinary Institute of America graduate, has cooked  at several fine Italian restaurants, including Spiaggia in Chicago and Restaurant Bricco in West Hartford. Co-owner Pasquale Salvatore has been involved in restaurant design and construction for 20 years. General manager John Battaglia grew up in this part of Waterbury, has been a Democratic Town Committee member for more than 20 years, a fire commissioner for five, and lives one block from La Tavola. No wonder we had the feeling that everything was under control and we were among friends.

La Tavola
702 Highland Ave., Waterbury (203/755-2211)

Lunch Monday through Saturday 11 to 3, dinner Monday through Saturday 5 to 10. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $9 to $14, entrées $16 to $28, desserts $8 to $9.

La Tavola, Waterbury

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