Short Orders: Taverna
3210 Armstrong Ave.
You can imagine Europe from a table inside Taverna, especially on a dim and sputtering March evening. The drafty windows, the clicking of rain, the homey clutter--it's like you've drifted somehow into an old world cafe...until Uptown boy walks in.
He saw fit to cradle designer sunglasses above the buttons of his shirt. Last night, After twenty or so hours of relentless downpour.
Oblivious poseurs sorta spoil the ambiance. But maybe that's a good thing. Daydreamers never accomplish much, or so grade school teachers used to remind us and Taverna is part of the Uptown, Knox-Henderson haven for urban cool. It can't help the occasional narcissist.
It can only counter with some damn good risotto.
Many of the city's kitchens struggle with the repetitive reduce-refill-reduce-refill-reduce demands risotto makes on whoever is charged with the cooking. It's easy to allow the tricky rice to slip beyond al dente into a wet, gooey mess--which they serve anyway. There are, in fact, some people who've never known anything but overcooked risotto.
But on recent visits--and especially last night--Taverna's version has been spectacular, at least by local standards: warm, rich, balanced and most importantly al dente...or close enough to it not to quibble. Grains of rice remained steadfastly individual, vegetables reasonably crisp, the cheese piquant yet smooth...if only Alberto Lombardi could teach his Cibus kitchen to perform the same feat.
And if Taverna's could figure out spaghetti carbonara.
Oh, the pasta and sauce turn out OK. But specks of coarsely ground black pepper are key to just about every carbonara recipe (as well as to the carbonara name). Clean, pasty beige, unspeckled, dull spaghetti is rather a letdown.
The restaurants in Lombardi-ville aim not for authenticity, however, but for semblance: the feeling of a European street side cafe first and decent cooking next. Yet Taverna may be the best of his ventures. The focaccia is light and deftly seasoned (sometimes too deftly), with a crisp and chewy texture that can be difficult to achieve consistently, especially in a flatbread. On the other hand, their oven failed to burn any of that beautiful, bittersweet char into the bottom crust. Beef dishes are generally cooked right and, again, treated moderately when it comes to salt and pepper. They're not memorable dishes, but good everyday kinda things. There's a nice selection of wines...
OK--only wine and beer at this place. Of course, no one really wants Fernet Branca, but grappa would be nice. As would greens that weren't sagging and sorry.
Taverna fits like a well-worn sweatshirt. Families, old folks and Uptown singles intermingle. And, best of all, recent visits suggest the kitchen hasn't faded much.