An insider's view of the Connecticut dining scene
Jul 8, 2014
01:58 PMThe Connecticut Table
Al Fresco or Inside, La Tavola a Delicious Waterbury Italian Charmer
Dining al fresco has a certain appeal, particularly this time of year, when soft breezes tame the sun’s rays.
La Tavola, a neighborhood Italian restaurant on the western side of Waterbury, raises its umbrellas over several tables in its front patio to enable patrons to savor the relaxed atmosphere as they experience the exciting dining experience chef/owner Nicola Mancini Jr. offers daily, inside as well as outdoors.
"Indeed, the food is in a league with Connecticut's iconic Italian greats."
On a recent weekend, this writer and a guest enjoyed lunch on the patio, a gift from a relative for her favorite restaurant. Saving room for the main dish, we shared a fried calamari appetizer (lightly battered, crispy on the outside and tender inside), with spicy marina sauce and cherry pepper aioli dips, as a starter, while quaffing a red wine sangria (a fruity house recipe with a touch of Triple Sec) and a cold beer, respectively.
(Right, pepper-crusted Ahi tuna with eggplanta caponata and French green beans.)
My lunch guest, who generally favors a pasta dish to taste its tomato sauce, ordered Rigatoni Bolognese next, which was flavorful with its classic meat sauce; visually appealing, topped with a mound of fresh ricotta and dollop of green pesto; and generously portioned—certainly enough for two.
This writer ordered her relative’s favorite lunch item, “Bricco’s” lobster grilled cheese, with chunk Maine lobster and oozing, melted Havarti cheese. It, too, was a generous serving, good to the last crunch of crust, and accompanied by a cool, well-dressed cucumber and tomato salad.
Following the waitress’s recommendation, we finished our meal sharing the chocolate lava cake with nutella (hazelnut cream) center, served with vanilla bean gelato and berries.
Mancini said in an interview that his customer “depend on getting good food here,” a mandate to be lived up to. He describes it succinctly in the introduction to the menus on La Tavola Ristorante’s website, saying, “This is Waterbury. So certain culinary truths must be upheld. To begin with—we strive for only fresh, local and seasonal ingredients. This approach dictates our daily menu. When artichokes are at their peak of flavor they grace the menu. Only the freshest fish finds its way onto our plates. And, we always remember our roots: with our unique twist on classic Italian desserts we strive to be both genuine and new.”
Mancini pointed out that La Tavola, which has been named to Connecticut magazine’s “Best of” lists more than once, does not offer daily specials. “Everything is more thought out and tested before it appears on the menu,” he said. In the dinner menu is where La Tavola’s stakes its claim on the culinary scene and where its reputation is built, according to the restaurateur.
He was quick to respond when asked what his recommendations would be from start to finish, as this writer recently requested on vacation in the Adriatic.
(Right, house-made lasagna Bolognese.)
Mancini would start with fried oysters, with pickled red onion, tomato concasse and cucumber raita; next, kale salad with lingonberry dressing, red onion, fennel, goat cheese and sunflower seed; then, Cavatelli Pomodoro, a customer favorite, with handmade pasta, San Marzano tomatoes, garlic, basil and perlinni mozzarella; followed by the braised veal shank, with truffle ravioli, butternut squash and leeks.
All this, he said, would be accompanied by Barone Ricascoli “Campo Sena” Super Tuscan, a red wine served by the glass.
And for dessert? Another customer favorite: Polenta Cake, with fresh zabaglione and fresh berries. The restaurant has a pastry chef, and all desserts are made there. “We have a cheesecake that changes according to the season; crème brulee; zeppole, [a fried doughnut Italian delicacy] served in a paper wrap like it is at the San Gennaro Festival…,” the restaurateur said.
Mancini, who was born in Waterbury and grew up in the Oakville section of Watertown, said he knew he wanted to cook as a career since he was 12. “I was “raised in a family that was all about food, a food-loving family that did Italian cooking, Italian curing and winemaking—everything.”
(Left, braised veal shank with truffle ravioli, butternut squash and leeks.)
After attending Kaynor Tech in its culinary program, he went to the Culinary Institute for the Arts and followed that up with practical experience in Chicago, Florida and New Orleans. He said he used to work at the former Harvest Moon in Watertown when he first got out of college.
Coming back to Connecticut, he opened three of the “Max” eateries in the Greater Hartford area—Max Amore, Max a Mia, and Max Downtown—and then went to work for Bricco in West Hartford.
When the former Faces restaurant closed, he and his business partner, Pasquale Salvatore of Waterbury, purchased the two-story brick building in a residential area in the Town Plot section of Waterbury, known for generations as “Little Italy.” He named his restaurant “La Tavola,” which means “table” in Italian.
The restaurant seats 50 on the patio; inside, 33 in the bar area and 63 in the dining room on the main floor.
On the basement level, which is available by special arrangement and for Friday and Saturday dinners, it can seat 50.
“There’s a whole wine cellar there and a wine wall around the dining area,” Mancini said, adding that La Tavola has an extensive wine list, noted in detail on its website. “We do private parties down there. The space is wired for PowerPoint and has a huge TV screen,” he said.
Mancini said he makes a special effort to source his ingredients locally, as much as possible. “I buy from a lot of local farms,” he said. For example, he continued, “I use a farm in Litchfield, Beaver Meadow Farm, that grows a lot of my greens, potatoes, and tomatoes, and I buy mushrooms locally, from Mountaintop Mushrooms in Waterbury.”
Mancini, who lives in Watertown, has his own garden at home. “Heirloom tomatoes—that’s all I grow,” he said, noting that during the summer he can also find quality produce from other growers in the area.
Mancini, who frankly said “I love it here”—both the location of his restaurant and its cuisine, has a deeper understanding of a neighborhood, or community, experience, thanks to his family’s roots.
“We’re from Benevento—my father was born there,” he said, recalling that on one visit they went to a “festa maialata—feast of the pig.”
“The whole town was there. They kill a pig and have a dinner. They eat all of it and they eat together, like a whole community,” he said. “They get fresher products daily, but I like to think we have a bit of that experience here.”
La Tavola Ristorante is located at 702 Highland Ave. in Waterbury. Parking can be found along the streets in the neighborhood.
For more information, call 203-775-2211 or visit its website at www.latavolaristorante.com.
Editor's note: This story appears in the July issue of LCT magazine, a publication of The Litchfield County Times.
Al Fresco or Inside, La Tavola a Delicious Waterbury Italian Charmer