By Daniel K. Lew
Not quite tucked away in La Jolla Village is La Taverna, a small Italian restaurant that could have been transplanted from a typical, old-Italian neighborhood. La Taverna, which only seats around 30-40 people, might be small in comparison to other area restaurants, but it makes up for it with generous servings of home-style, rustic and classic Italian food with a strong Tuscan influence.
Customers first enter La Taverna's sidewalk patio through a vine-covered archway wrapped with twinkling lights. Stepping inside the intimate dining room, it feels like one is transported to an Italian village alleyway. The inside of La Taverna is designed to look like an "outside" Italian restaurant with glowing street lamps, a tiled roof protruding from the wall, high ceiling, second-story balconies and windows, and a beautiful mural accenting a whole wall.
Once settled in, patrons are ready for a homey Italian meal. The restaurant's cheeses, prosciutto and pastas are imported from Italy, with the rest of the ingredients coming from local, organic farms, said Mary Ann Vitale, owner and executive chef.
Vitale, a second-generation Italian-American, grew up around Italian deli-markets and pizza restaurants operated by her parents, and she started to cook and bake at a young age.
She also learned from her father, Saverio Fumusa, who hails from Castellammare, the sausage capital of Sicily. Vitale continues to use her father's recipes to make Italian sausage and a few other dishes.
Classic Italian comfort food is what Vitale knows best — and she proves it in the restaurant's most popular dish, Parmesan Crusted Breast of Chicken, covered in a zesty breadcrumb and Parmesan cheese crust. It's baked to a crisp, then topped with a lemon shallot sauce and served with garlic "smashed" potatoes and a vegetable medley.
Pasta dishes enough for a meal include Pennette alla Vodka, made with marinara sauce, a touch of cream, red chili pepper flakes and vodka tossed with pennette pasta.
The self-proclaimed "Famous" Pasta La Jolla is equally hearty with grilled chicken breast, oven-roasted tomatoes and mushrooms in a Parmesan cream sauce tossed with pennette pasta.
Risotto del Giorno — or "risotto of the day" — changes regularly; the risotto on one particular visit was Pesto Risotto with goat cheese, pine nuts and grilled chicken breast.
Regular patrons say they look forward to Vitale's moist, old-fashioned cakes as much as the main courses. Upon entering the restaurant, customers are tempted to head straight for dessert with displays of the daily baked Coconut Cake, Buttermilk Chocolate Cake with espresso frosting, and most-popular Banana Cake with brown-butter frosting, cream glaze and pecan topping.
Mondays and Thursdays are the most crowded nights when a 5-course Tuscan Menu is served for $24.95 a person.
Those who want a "Taste of Tuscany in Small Bites" can try Wednesday's special menu 5:30-7:30 p.m. to sample dishes like Meatballs with Marinara, Housemade Sausage with Pepper and Onions, Eggplant Parmagana, Shrimp Scampi, or Caramelized Onion, Gorgonzola and Prosciutto Focaccini.
La Taverna's selection of appetizers, salads, entrees and pasta dishes include sandwiches and pizza at lunchtime.