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Setting the table for La Tavola - INTERVIEW, PHOTOS

blog by Ben Tsujimoto  • 

As I was set to leave La Tavola Trattoria, a new Italian restaurant stationed at 1458 Hertel Ave., I overheard a customer talking to co-owner Rich Syracuse, who also owns Gecko’s Bar and Grille a few doors down the road.

“I actually feel like I’m somewhere else,” the customer said.

Out of context, the above comment makes no sense unless it involves hallucinogenic drugs, but at La Tavola, the phrase resonates.

In atmosphere and decor, La Tavola Trattoria feels like a temporary step into the bustling metropolis of New York City with a retro, early-1900s twist. Venetian plaster, new brick walls, a wood-fired oven, and black and white photos from Elmwood’s Poster Art are reminiscent of Little Italy—fitting considering the ethnic makeup of Hertel Avenue.

Add Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” or Michael Buble’s big-band style cascading down from the speakers, and you’re practically lodged in a Manhattan restaurant.

The project of partners Victor Cali, who recently ran a Depew Pizzeria; Pat Gentile, current owner of Gecko’s Bar and Grille; and Rich and Jack Syracuse, Cali’s cousins; has been open since May 22, and aims to be approved for a liquor license in tow for full dinner service beginning in the middle of June. In the meantime, La Tavola will serve lunch Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and include extended hours on Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

La Tavola, which means “the dining table” in Italian, has the chance to capitalize where other Buffalo-based restaurants have struggled—churning out quality wood-fired pizzas. Rocco’s Wood-Fired Pizza and Vera Pizzeria’s versions haven’t been particularly well received, and Pizza Amore Wood-Fired Pizza hangs out in Grand Island or at festivals.

Gentile emphasized that the restaurant’s wood-fired oven—which cost him between $18,000 or $20,000—is unlike its peers because only wood is involved; there’s no gas element whatsoever. Equally as excited, Cali added that he anticipates the margherita pizza (San Marzano tomatoes and fresh mozzarella) will be a quick seller.

The benefits to a quality wood-fired pizza are immediately noticeable—the preparation time takes three to four minutes (compared to 10-to-15 for a regular oven-baked pizza), the thin crust has a slight char without drying out (a much superior texture, to me at least) and there’s a noticeable difference in taste—at least according to proud Italians.

Cali (pictured, right) has been tasked with preparing and cooking the wood-fired pizzas, as well as paying careful attention to the temperature and cooking speed of the oven. According to the co-owner, the fire is kindled at 8 a.m. so the temperature reaches the desired level—between 750 and 800 degrees—when La Tavola opens at 11.

The fairly tedious preparation is worthwhile, however, because La Tavola head chef Chris Luccari (pictured, left) doesn’t hesitate to use the wood-fired oven for wings, stuffed peppers and even a shrimp fra diavolo as well.

Recognizing that Romeo and Juliet’s (which lacks a wood-fired oven, by the way), Caramici’s Bistro and Bakery, Ristorante Lombardo, Marco’s Italian Deli and several small pizza shops like Zip’s-Wise Guys and Daddio’s offer direct competition on Hertel, Gentile isn’t fazed.

“I see the competition as a good thing,” the La Tavola co-owner countered when I asked if Hertel’s bevy of Italian restaurants created any trepidation in opening a new place. “We’re totally different since we have an authentic wood-fired oven and don’t use a panini press.”

Lifelong Buffalonians Cali (St. Paul School and Cardinal O’Hara) and Gentile (St. Margaret School, Bennett High School) have been friends for years, and the dream to open a restaurant together was planted long ago, even as the former crafted pizza after pizza in Depew and the latter took over Gecko’s in 2000.

The vision became more realistic when Gentile and Cali scouted locations for a prospective restaurant on Elmwood and Hertel last summer, then solidified when Guttuso’s North End went out of business, opening the attractive space at 1458 Hertel.

From a structural standpoint, the restaurant is split into four primary areas: a full bar to the right as you walk in and an open kitchen area harboring the wood-fired oven on the opposite side. There’s seating for roughly 25 dine-in customers upstairs (though takeout is available) while a prep kitchen is hidden in the back left of the restaurant as well.

After less than a week of service—there will be plenty of tweaking in the future, as well as a dinner menu—the current offerings are split into antipasto, insalata, panini (major kudos on avoiding the ‘s’ at the end), homemade pasta, burgers and wood-fired pizzas—while desserts aren’t listed on the menu, . Prices range from $6 to $16, and portion sizes are appropriate to a little large.

Luccari’s culinary background makes him an intriguing fit at La Tavola, as he specializes in Creole-Italian-style after spending eight years as a chef in New Orleans—you’ll see stronger hints of his “Nawlins” touch on the dinner menu when it’s released. He recently cooked at Guttuso’s North End as well.

When asked to describe “Creole-Italian” fare, the chef explained that in most Italian dishes, only one meat is featured on each plate, while Creole-Italian balances several meats at once while incorporating a greater degree of spice for a “bolder” flavor. If you’re still a tad confused, here are a few examples provided by Luccari.

—BBQ shrimp linguine: “It’s not actually barbecue,” Luccari said, calling out the misnomer. A Meuniere sauce blending beer, Worcestershire sauce and butter covers homemade linguini and shrimp.
—Shrimp, sausage and chicken in Cajun cream sauce over homemade pasta: See what we mean by meat and seafood overload in Creole-Italian dishes?
—Bread pudding: Though Luccari didn’t mention a Bourbon sauce (bummer), melted chocolate chips, amaretto, powdered sugar cover a moist-but-not-soggy bread that had been dried out in the wood-fired over.

Gentile was particularly excited about the “Cannolitini,” which houses one of three flavors of cannoli filling inside a martini glass, and three mini-cannoli shells are stacked on top for dipping.

While there’s no shortage of Italian food options on Hertel, visit La Tavola for a Creole twist, wood-fired pizza and a New York City-esque atmosphere.

La Tavola Trattoria on Urbanspoon

Photo of La Tavola’s bar area, although it’s not stocked because the restaurant has yet to receive its liquor license

Photo of the roasted turkey panino, heavily Instagram’d (sorry, it was dark!)

Photo of La Tavola’s present lunch menu

Cali prepares a pizza to the right of the wood-fired oven.

TAGGED: chris luccari, hertel avenue, la tavola trattoria, little italy, new york city, pat gentile, victor cali, wood-fired pizza

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