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La Tabella from Post & Courier

La Tabella from Post & Courier

La Tabella, an Italian restaurant whose name means “the table,” opened late this fall in the spot once occupied by Lombardi’s.

James Island residents Bobby, Carol and Randy Newman are the owners. Kevin Bruntz is the executive chef.

The narrow strip of seating that was the dining room remains, as does much of the poster art, oversized wine glass sculpture and color palette.

Fortunately the warren of little spaces have been reconfigured into a welcoming bar area with high tops for seating and eating. A wall now separates the open kitchen from the dining space. The previous hostess station is now a cozy booth.

The owners have nipped and tucked the space to create a casual, unpretentious Italian trattoria.

A steady stream of locals and friends have found a spot to enjoy the classic Italian-American dining experience. Here, you will find calamari, not crudo; linguini with clams, not spaghetti nero di sepia; veal parmesan, not capretto arrosto.

The menu includes the classics of Italian-American cooking: spaghetti with meatballs ($10), baked manicotti ($12.95), chicken Marsala ($14.95), veal picatta ($17.95) and eggplant parmesan ($13.95).

What is unusual is sesame-seared tuna with wasabi and ginger ($9.25), a $6 surcharge for Oscar “sauce” over a filet mignon or rib-eye steak; and a Diane (as in steak Diane) preparation ($3) for grilled steaks. The soup of the day was a broccoli cheddar ($3, $6).

Appetizers are heavy on dips and all appeared generousenough to share. The goat cheese Napoleon ($7.25) stacks a mild goat cheese spread with layers of grilled tomato and yellow pepper slices. This short tower is presented over a spring mix of greens with a reduced balsamic vinaigrette. It is a refreshing beginning.

The shrimp and grilled polenta cake (appetizer, $6.95; entree $14.95) also is equally satisfying. Crisp slices of polenta are topped with shrimp, sausage, bell peppers and onions and finished with a cream sauce enhanced with nutty Marsala. Like most of the appetizers, there is a richness to their ingredients and the portions are sized for sharing.

The same can be said about the salad offerings. The more interesting La Tabella spinach salad with warm roasted Roma tomatoes, toasted pine nuts and goat cheese ($9.25) and the La Tabella salad ($9.25) with dried figs, toasted almonds and tarragon-orange vanilla vinaigrette are substantial in price and portion.

A small garden salad ($5) simply tossed with the house vinaigrette or tableside oil and vinegar is the better option.

A warm loaf of bread is served with a puddle of olive oil for dipping.

Penne Bolognese ($9.50) is a bargain. The quill-shaped pasta is a perfect foil for this classic meat sauce. The same sauce layers the lasagna ($14.95). Linguini and clams ($16.50) is simply prepared with olive oil, garlic, herbs, clams and butter.

The somewhat culinary cliches of Italian cooking, the Parmesans, Piccatas, and the Marsalas, are paired with angel hair pasta. These pasta filaments are too delicate to complement the weight of these casserole-like dishes. Spaghetti would offer more substance.

Chef Bruntz has created his take on chicken hunter-style called chicken cacciatore blanco ($11.95). Half of a chicken is marinated, braised and finished under the flames to crisp the skin. It is served in a sauce of olives, lemon, garlic and white wine over broccoli and linguini. The chicken was both succulent and crisp.

The linguini, however, never absorbed the flavor of the sauce and the braising liquid needed to be reduced a bit to concentrate the flavors. With minimal correcting, this pollo dish is a keeper.

Pork osso buco ($19.95) had a similar fate. A huge five-inch pork shank was simmered until its tender flesh released from the bone. It was accompanied by a vegetable ragout of bell peppers, bacon bits, celery and onion. Like osso buco Milanese, it was served with a cremini mushroom risotto. The latter was more like soup than the alla onda sway of this Northern Italian rice dish. With a little more time spent reducing these sauce essences, both of these dishes can become memorable.

The sides at La Tabella are capable of cobbling together a meal in their own right. Meat balls ($4.50) and sausages ($4.50) can be paired with pasta ($3) or polenta ($1).

A vegetable risotto ($3) will complement sauteed spinach ($3) for a simple vegetarian meal and your bambino can easily eat from the abbondanza of your own dishes.

Kudos to La Tabella for offering an interesting dessert menu (all $6). Creme brulee is flavored with Limoncello. Its take on tiramisu is called Lady Van Gough, served with strawberries drizzled with balsamic and an over-the-top chocolate (cream) on chocolate (ganache) on chocolate (chips) cake.

The menu at La Tabella are foods suited for longevity. They are the all-stars of the red-checked tablecloth and straw-wrapped Chianti nation. Neither fancy nor fussy, they speak to the community of appetites that like Italian-American food.

The servers hustle and the owners schmooze and James Islanders have a destination spot for red sauce, red meat and a taste of the Italian-American dining experience at the table where, as they say in Italy, “no one grows old.”

Full article at Post & Courier.