Do you remember how good restaurant bread can be? Chewy, crunchy crust; that slight pull when you bite; the subtle tang of yeast in the bready flesh. After years of abuse from spongy focaccia and wimpy rolls, it's revelatory to have bread delivered to your table that actually makes you take notice.
Bread — real, quality, delicious bread — was the first indicator that my meal at La Tavola Trattoria would be better than expected.
The restaurant, opened by Fifth Group in 1999 (the company's third after South City Kitchen and the now-defunct Food Studio), has been a steadily popular mainstay of Virginia-Highland. It's a neighborhood restaurant through and through, from its glass storefront location to its cozy 55-seat dining room and tiny bar. La Tavola is one of those places that's so at home with itself it has self-perpetuated with very little hype. It's rarely mentioned when Atlanta foodies talk about the city's best (or even very good) Italian restaurants. And yet, on any night of the week the dining room will be full by 6:45 and stay that way until well after 9. This isn't just a function of location. It's because that bread is an example of La Tavola's enduring appeal: its almost surprising dedication to quality.
That dedication to quality isn't so surprising when you consider the background of chef Craig Richards, who came to Atlanta after years of working with Italian food maven Lidia Bastianich. Richards has now been at La Tavola for five years, and his presence in the restaurant is part of what makes the place feel so personal. Most nights he acts as expediter and food runner, which is a welcome variation on the dropping-by-the-table chef schmooze. He's present and friendly and wants to know if you're happy, but he's not swanning around basking in the glow of customer adoration while someone else does all the work. And his history with Bastianich (he also did a stint in the kitchen at Mario Batali's Babbo) has given him a grounding in both uncomplicated Italian cooking and more exciting regional specialties.
For the regular menu that means classic, carefully coddled Italian fare. Appetizers don't get much more outrageous than a few lovely salads and a bowl of olives. But beneath the menu's deceptive simplicity lies some serious craft. The Burrata here is the perfect consistency, somewhere between the softness of quality mozzarella and the silken mouthfeel of heavy cream. An accompanying tomato jam might seem too sweet on first try, but add just a touch rather than a dollop and the combination, smeared on crostini, is like a naughty savory Devonshire tea.
A modest menu of deftly executed pastas is followed by a similarly straightforward collection of main courses. Thin-as-a-whisper spaghettini is bathed in brightly tart red sauce and flanked by hulking veal and pork meatballs that have that magical mellow meatiness that's always longed for but rarely achieved. The almost-too-acidic tomato base of a huge plate of manicotti ultimately works to balance the heft of copious cheese and meat. You look at that plate and think, "I'll never finish all that." Miraculously, 15 delicious cheesy saucy minutes later, it's all gone.
A chili-rubbed roast chicken, served with bitter arugula, black olives and a lemon for squeezing, is genuinely spicy, the stunningly clear and opposing flavors working together to create something new.
A few times a year, the restaurant serves special seasonal menus, and it's here that diners get to see Richards' more daring side. Last week the abbondanza menu (abbondanza being the Italian word for "abundance," in celebration of the harvest) featured dishes from central Italy. A curl of house-made venison sausage sat over Castelluccio lentils and bursts of sweet squash for a warming comfort of a dish. Trout's skin was crisscross crisped, the huge portion set over Brussels sprouts, more squash and pancetta. A tart pomegranate vinaigrette set off and brightened the earthy veggies. Soft clouds of ricotta gnocchi sat bathed in a black truffle sauce that actually tasted like truffle rather than the chemical sting of truffle oil. A soft poached egg on top ramped up the dish from rich to decadent.
I wish more of this style of Richard's cooking was on display all the time at La Tavola, because while he does the classics great justice, for me, these regional specialties are where the magic lies. But this little restaurant has plenty of charm even without the special menus. Fifth Group has had brushes with fad following and crowd-pandering, but for the most part they open solid concepts and stay true to the integrity of the cuisine. From the bread on through to a bitter, creamy espresso at the end of the meal, it's nice to be taken aback by an excess in quality.