The romance and charm of going to Little Italy for dinner never wanes. Sure, there are newer, spiffier places in town dishing up Old World fare, but there's something magical about heading to this city neighborhood that looks as if it's been frozen in time with its Formstone row houses and decades-old restaurants.
There's just one problem: Where do you go? Everybody has a different idea about which places are the best. But we noticed that one name keeps popping up—La Scala, a bustling dining establishment that boasts an indoor bocce court, a 2,200-bottle wine room, and a hands-on chef/owner, Nino Germano.
We hadn't been in a while and decided it was time to revisit the restaurant perched on Eastern Avenue with the signature blue awnings. We're glad we did. Not everything was perfect, but our waiter was so droll and the ambiance so lively that we could forgive minor lapses during the meal.
How can you not love a place that placates its hungry diners with a plate of chilled garlicky green beans and soft boiled potato wedges as soon as they're seated?
The main menu doesn't hold any surprises. It's what you'd expect at an Italian eatery. There's a decent assortment of veal, seafood, chicken, and pasta dishes that all sound appealing.
But, wait, there's another list. This one offers a selection of imported meats and cheeses, allowing you to build your own antipasto platter. We paired formaggio di capra—an excellent creamy goat cheese—with thin, luscious slices of prosciutto di Parma.
We also started with a plate of steamed mussels dressed with a rich, spicy marinara sauce. Each plump, juicy mussel was carefully arranged in a decorative, concentric circle on a plate, showing the kitchen's care.
Our other appetizer—a thin polenta cake doused with a cognac-pancetta-and-porcini-mushroom sauce—was disappointing. While the brandy gave the dish some life, the result was surprisingly bland with sparse amounts of pancetta and mushrooms.
We fared well with our main dishes. The most impressive was a giant pot of all manner of seafood—tender mussels, shrimp, a hunk of white fish, squid, octopus—piled atop a mound of linguine and ladled with thick marinara sauce. We barely made a dent in this bountiful offering. But it's pretty much guaranteed you'll be taking home leftovers, no matter what you order. These are generous servings.
The flavor-packed chicken Abruzzese featured two moist boneless breasts studded with slivers of sun-dried tomatoes and fresh basil, awash in a delicate white-wine sauce. Our most decadent dish—from a cardiologist's standpoint—was the spaghetti alla carbonara with strands of toothsome pasta lathered with a clingy, addictive cream-and-egg sauce and intertwined with cubes of pancetta and Parmesan. Of course, we said yes to more freshly ground Parmesan on top.
The weeknight we visited, the restaurant was noisily packed with diners. Even with a crowd, the restaurant staff doesn't rush diners through their meals. Our waiter—in the restaurant's signature royal-blue wait-staff jacket—seemed to be handling most of the tables in the dining room by the bar. He was a seasoned server and never missed a beat, clearly enjoying his interchanges with his customers.
Where is the sorbet from? Italy, of course, he answered with a raised eyebrow and sly smile, as if we had asked him where milk comes from. We were never sure we were getting a straight answer, but he was fun.
And the sorbet was a good dessert choice. We had the refreshing pineapple, which was smoothed into a scooped-out real pineapple. Pretty and pleasing.
But, really, you have to order a cannoli here. We know, it sounds so ordinary, but this confection isn't.
Chef Nino makes the delicate shells, and his mother creates the rich ricotta fillings laced with lemon, chocolate, hazelnut, or coffee. We had the hazelnut cannoli and can't remember the last time we had one that was this good. Lingering over coffee, we realized how much we had been made to feel at home here. The brick walls, wrought-iron railings, colorful photos of Sicily, and a wall of family and friend photos create a nurturing space. No one was playing bocce that night, but the court was inviting—if only we knew how to play!
A manager checked on us midway through our meal. And at the end, our waiter sincerely thanked us for coming. No wonder we hear so much about La Scala. The food, surrounds, and service all equal a very good time.