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La Tavola is worth a detour off Little Italy's main drag

When you walk into La Tavola, cooking aromas envelope and embrace you like a warm coat. The garlic, oregano, sage and simmering sauces put your senses on alert for good food from the kitchen.

The Albemarle Street restaurant is on the outskirts of Little Italy and doesn’t always get the attention the places do that line the more popular South High Street. We were glad we took a detour.

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The dining room is comfortable but plain, except for some monochromatic murals on the white brick walls. The philodendron plants, carpet and acoustic-tile ceiling look as if they belong in the late 1990s, when the restaurant was founded.

But we found it easy to like this cozy enclave, where Louis Prima, Dean Martin and Rosemary Clooney belted out sing-along classics over the sound system. Our server was a dynamic salesman for the Italian dishes and chef-owner Carlo Vignotto.

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The menu is heavy on appetizers and pastas, with a handful of entrees offered. You could easily nosh your way through a meal by focusing on starters like buffalo mozzarella with roasted peppers, a plate of cured meats and cheeses, and clams and mussels dressed in white-wine garlic sauce.

The fritto misto is a beginning dish you should add to your lineup. Calamari, shrimp, zucchini and eggplant are flash-fried to a light crispness and served with hot marinara sauce in a gravy boat. You may have to poke through the jumble to find a slice of grilled polenta. Don’t miss it.

Bruschetta may seem like a simple prep, but fresh ingredients make a difference. At La Tavola, hunks of garlic bread are worthy bases for a topping of chopped tomatoes and basil made voluptuous with a really good extra-virgin olive oil.

Pair your meal with a flight of featured wines or a bottle from a list of mostly Italian wines. A seasonal beer menu included a Shiner Holiday Cheer dark wheat ale and a Flying Dog Brewery peach cobbler ale. Specialty cocktails like a gin pesto and spiked fruit punch are also available.

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Pastas are house-made, and each dish can be adjusted to include your noodle of choice, our server said. We had no desire to change the squid-ink spaghetti that supported an excellent “neri al granchio” with fat crab lumps, spinach, cherry tomatoes and a wine sauce.

The chef is a fisherman, we were told, and one of the day’s specials featured a Maryland rockfish that he caught, according to our waiter. Maybe it was a fish story, but we bit and weren’t disappointed. A lovely fillet was wrapped in parchment paper with broccoli and tomatoes and delivered like an unwrapped gift to our table. The flavors were pure and delicious.

The house-made sweets aren’t second-class citizens at La Tavola. There’s the chef’s three-cheese cheesecake, profiteroles and tartufo — a round mold of vanilla and espresso gelato with coconut shavings — that was described as big as a softball.

We were drawn to the tiramisu and were impressed with the kitchen’s version of this ubiquitous dessert. An airy confection of ladyfingers was paired with a decorative accent of mascarpone sweet cream that we couldn’t stop eating.

But the finish we liked best was the formaggi misti, a satisfying cheese plate with fontina, goat cheese, Parmesan, honeyed walnuts and sliced apples.

La Tavola serves lunch and has a children’s menu. An intimate bar and an upstairs banquet room are also housed in the building that stretches almost a block.

The restaurant isn’t the showiest place in Little Italy, but the well-prepared food is a lure off the main drag.

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