While Bloomfield is nominally Pittsburgh's Little Italy, the truth is, Italian dining is woven throughout the complex ethnic tapestry of the city's neighborhoods and suburbs. Some of our Italian restaurants are fancy, and some are homey; some are fastidiously faithful to the recipes of a certain region, while some are not. But all of them trade on Americans' deep embrace of the culinary traditions brought here over one hundred years ago by Italian immigrants, the foods and preparations that are now celebrated as the healthful, and delicious, Mediterranean diet.
La Tavola Italiana is a family-run Italian restaurant nestled deep in the back streets of Mount Washington. Actually, Boggs Avenue is one of the neighborhood's major thoroughfares, but its disconnect from the one street everyone knows — Grandview — means visitors may need their GPS, or an old-fashioned map, to find it.
Once there, La Tavola's low-slung building, with its large and sparsely decorated dining room in front and tiny pizza-take-out counter in back, seems light-years away from Grandview's glitz. But a warm welcome — and a basket of warm garlic bread brought to our table — enfolded us immediately in La Tavola's treat-everyone-like-a-regular vibe.
The menu reflects the Sicilian heritage of owner Carmela Giaramita, who, with her husband, Joe, and daughter, Jolina — who serves as executive chef — continues to be intimately involved in the daily operations of the restaurant. In fact, the Giaramitas are expanding it: Carmela recently inaugurated "Carmela's Kitchen," a schedule of cooking classes and special dinners, and a bid to open a pizzeria in East Liberty goes back to the restaurant's origin, 20 years ago, as Joe Giaramita's pizza shop.
If La Tavola's pizzeria pie is anything like what we had at the sit-down restaurant, we'd like to be first in line. Pizza Margherita, offered on the antipasti list, featured a terrifically yeasty, chewy crust judiciously slathered with tomato sauce and crowned with creamy blobs of molten mozzarella.
Calamari fritti recalled that Sicily's native cuisine comes fresh from the sea — and that Pittsburgh's does not. While perfectly pleasing, these were unmistakably inland calamari, distinguishable from those on offer at many a local pub mainly by the evident expertise in their light, crispy, simply seasoned batter coats.
Far more exceptional was a special appetizer of eggplant Milanese, which might be more humbly described as fried eggplant fritters. Because of their thickness, each bite revealed three distinct strata, perfect in combination: a crisply browned, breaded exterior; an almost custard-like layer of well-cooked eggplant beneath this crust; and, in the center, a still-firm core of vegetal goodness. In a town overrun with fried zucchini, La Tavola's fried eggplant stands tall.
Entrees include Italian restaurant classics such as parmigiana, marsala and piccata, prepared with either chicken or veal, as well as hearty surf-and-turf fare like swordfish (roasted, with lemon, garlic and herbs), New York strip, and even rack of lamb (available as whole or half).
The meats, with their simple preparations, were tempting. But, being in the mood for pasta, we did not put them to the test. We tried, instead, spaghetti with meatballs, pasta con frutti di mare and a variant of spaghetti Bolognese, gnocchi alla Louigi.
Aside from the obvious switch-out of potato dumplings for noodles, the latter featured homemade hot sausage and banana peppers adding some spicy high notes to the richly simmered bass ones of the of the Bolognese ragu. The gnocchi were pillowy and delightfully chewy, substantial without being heavy. But the balance of the sauce was thrown off by too much sweetness.
Sweetness also dominated the dark red, Northern-style sauce that came with the spaghetti. This was a shame because the meatball was perfect, tender with a flavor that balanced meatiness with nutty parmesan and aromatic herbs.
The frutti di mare — clams, mussels, shrimp and scallops — came in a much more congenial sauce, bright red and chunky, with just enough white wine and garlic flavor to unite the various shellfish. Each was well cooked, with plump mussels and firm shrimp standing out.
La Tavola means "the table," a name which communicates the essential experience of this restaurant. When we gather around the table, we nourish our physical and social selves by sharing good food with those whose company we cherish. This is a daily experience central to Italian culture, and one which La Tavola keeps alive on Mount Washington.