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La Scala sets a solid standard in Little Italy

La Scala in Little Italy was having a grand night when we visited on a recent Wednesday. Upstairs, the dining rooms were full of diners who looked to be evenly divided between business and family groups, first-timers and regulars. Downstairs, the bar was overflowing, and a woman reading a novel offered to make room for us.

But the weather was so nice, it was even nicer to take a cocktail out to La Scala's small front porch. La Scala looks and feels better since it was expanded two years ago — the added indoor bocce court works maybe only as a conversation starter, but the natural light and the illusion at least of more elbow room are definite assets.

This is Nino Germano's Little Italy restaurant. It's been in this location since 1999, and before then, it ran in a High Street location for four years. It has never gone completely out of favor, but it once might have gotten more attention. It seems now to have hit its stride. Although it's not the most talked-about restaurant right now, it has its own share of partisans.

La Scala also is likely a comfortable choice for concierges looking for a Little Italy restaurant to direct guests to — approaching the neighborhood's higher end, but easily accessible and comfortable.

It did end up to be an expensive evening, but we were indulging. La Scala has recently introduced a smart Salumeria menu of seven meats and 15 cheeses, complete with usefully written menu descriptions. The meats aren't cured in-house; they're imported, but La Scala slices them gorgeously. (La Scala for a while operated Il Scalino, a separate salumeria on High Street where Max's Empanadas is now.) Each item costs $4.95, but you can order five for $20.95.

This is what we did, leaving the choice to the chef, who assembled a handsome platter of Piave, Gouda-like Prima Donna, two luscious cuts of prosciutto and a divine pancetta. Then came, two versions of La Scala's deservedly admired Caesar salad: one traditional, the other the restaurant's grilled version, which is as good today as it was when it was a novelty.

These are real salads, dressed by the kitchen, so that crisp lettuce leaves are evenly coated with good, snappy dressing that has the essential flavor of anchovy.

Salumi and salad might be the best way to start here. Appetizers are limited to eight items, mostly familiar or heavy things like calamari, bruschetta and mussels, which I found easy to pass up. Polenta with a Cognac, pancetta, and porcini mushroom sauce sounded promising but was too heavy handed. The sauce was nearly gelatinous and in need of some nuance.

In addition to more than a dozen pasta dishes, entrees are divided up among veal, seafood, beef and chicken dishes. None of it is spa cuisine — think cream sauces, white wine sauces, butter, Marsala wine, cognac and more cream sauces. When it's done right, this food needn't feel heavy or sodden, and Germano's sauces, all prepared to order, are generally bright and lemony.

An Italian version of steak au poivre, a pepato, is a very simple and beautiful fillet. Rolled in black peppercorns and suspended in the center of a classic brown sauce, the steak was rosy, fork-tender and very flavorful. An evening's special (although I wouldn't be surprised if someone told me it's been a special since La Scala opened), chicken and shrimp "Al's Way" is just a good old-fashioned production of boneless chicken breast (just slightly overcooked) and shrimp in a sherry cream sauce. In an impressive spaghetti alla carbonara, you can plainly see pieces of nearly translucent pancetta and bits of just curdled eggs.

If you haven't been generally eating like this, this rich food can be a little bit shocking, and you'll be better off the longer you commit to a meal. The blue-jacketed servers, whom I thought were thoroughly professional here, easily adapted to our slower pace. Backed by a straightforward and sensibly arranged wine list, they are adroit but not pushy with wine service.

La Scala's celebrated cannoli are on temporary hiatus while Pina Germano, Nino's mother, the only person authorized to make them, recuperates from recent surgery. Instead, try the very good homemade raspberry panna cotta, a silkily perfect finish for a big meal. Far less interesting is the wimpy homemade tiramisu that lacks body and espresso flavor.

A small, nice touch was the sealed menu presented to newly seated diners. It's a gimmick, yes, but a good one — it makes you feel like your meal will matter. Nino Germano's presence in the dining room or at the bar, chatting with diners, strikes me as another asset.

I have always liked the downstairs bar at La Scala, and would still probably prefer to take my meal there, but the upstairs dining rooms are growing on me. We were in the smallest of the three, which felt intimate, and we lucked out with table neighbors. Good restaurants create good luck.

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