Chef Vittorio Ettore’s Bistro 5, in Medford, is the quintessential neighborhood restaurant - beloved by those who live nearby, seldom visited by those who don’t. With his new venture, A Tavola, Ettore and chef de cuisine Brendan Wood (KO Prime) create a similar restaurant in Winchester.
A Tavola is meant to be Bistro 5’s more-casual sister restaurant. It offers a roster of Italian dishes that are just enough off the beaten track, intriguing without being alienating - cocoa pasta with braised rabbit and goat cheese, for instance. The menu is concise, with a few soups and salads, a half-dozen pasta dishes, and four main courses. It is devoted in part to piattini, described as “small bites for the table.’’
Take those words seriously. You’ve ordered small plates before. These are Lilliputian: a few delicate slices of boar prosciutto, tiny toasts topped with whisper-thin lardo, a sliver or two of duck sausage with foie gras mousse. This allows you to experience many flavors without spoiling your appetite, but the bill adds up quickly. (The restaurant recommends two per person.)
You might not balk if your order includes grilled squid, spectacularly tentacled, served in a little skillet with a bit of nicely bitter radicchio. A relatively generous portion of tuna crudo is accented by roasted peppers, olives, and plump capers, pungent and briny. Bruschetta comes topped with peppers, tomatoes, and lovely white anchovies poached in olive oil. And that duck sausage with foie gras mousse is a decadent little treat.
But dry mozzarella di bufala disappoints, and the accompanying celery leaves and black truffle coulis can’t save it. Charcuterie is presented with a minimalism and austerity usually reserved for sashimi. It looks beautiful, but one still wishes for more.
A Tavola’s pasta dishes are well conceived. If only they were consistently well executed. That enticing cocoa pasta is undercooked, and some bites of braised rabbit are dry and too salty. Meanwhile, a special one night of bucatini with lobster needs more salt, and the noodles have a grainy texture. But squid ink bigoli is an arresting presentation, the midnight black pasta tossed with tender cuttlefish, tomatoes, capers, and olives. Substantial potato gnocchi work well paired with the bright, light flavors of orange and shrimp. And rigatoni Bolognese is a deep, rich version no one wants to share. Pasta dishes are available in half-portions, always a welcome option. (Gluten-free pasta is available upon request.)
As for main courses, don’t judge a dish by its menu description. The options that sound interesting can be dull. Take, for instance, a seafood risotto. One has a choice of white (regular), red (tomato), yellow (saffron), or black (squid ink). We try the saffron version, which resembles paella more than risotto. Lacking creaminess, it is mainly salty, bright yellow rice, without enough seafood to offset the monotony. It’s $25 per person, with a two-person minimum, and not worth the price.
Recently, Boston restaurants have seen a rash of dishes being smoked tableside. A Tavola’s version involves a glass cloche full of smoke, which is lifted to reveal a wedge of porchetta, described on the menu as “slow cooked whole roasted pig.’’ (Because there has also been a rash of whole pigs carved tableside, several diners are disappointed to find the meat already sliced.) The pork roast is tasty enough, with perfectly cooked and seasoned acorn squash and kale, but it’s outshone by its presentation.
On the other hand, dishes that sound run-of-the-mill prove to be something more. Pollo al mattone, chicken under a brick (or other hefty weight), generally seems like an offering Italian restaurants use to get less-adventurous diners excited: “It’s chicken, which I love. But it’s cooked under a brick, so it’s different!’’ A Tavola’s version offers impressively crisp skin, juicy meat, and the fragrance of rosemary. Likewise, thin-sliced grilled skirt steak may not win awards for creativity, but it is smoky and flavorful, served with fingerling potatoes and red peppers.
Dessert might be bunet, a chocolate custard with amaretti cookies and candied orange, tastes that always work well together. Bomboloni are overly doughy doughnuts served with a bit of Nutella, chantilly cream, and powdered sugar.
The wine list is all Italian. Rather than single glasses, A Tavola serves carafes that contain a glass and a half, nice if two people want to share, say, white with a first course and red with a second. There are also Italian sodas and beer, not listed on the menu.
The restaurant is still finding its feet. On some visits, we’re seated right away at the time for which we’ve reserved a table, well tended to, and fed at a proper pace. On others, reservations get lost; we’re stuck lurking awkwardly in the door, behind the curtain that keeps out the breeze (there’s no other place to wait); we’re checked on sporadically; and our food takes ages to arrive.
A Tavola was formerly Parsons Table, and the restaurant looks much the same - a small room warmed by an open kitchen with a little bar, rustic barn boards and vintage signs on the walls. Ettore seems to always be in the house, an energetic presence, mingling with guests when he’s not in the kitchen. Right now, the food requires full attention. A Tavola still needs polishing, but it has the potential to serve this neighborhood well.