All but the best menus should be approached as one would a treasure hunt or a detective novel — as a search for clues, ingredients, and preparations that might make for the most enjoyable meal. Where most chefs showcase their best dishes with bravado, Taverna Fiorentina's Andreas Montobbio tends to hide his authentic, soul-pleasing Italian dishes behind the veneer of suburbia-friendly comfort. It's real Italian food posing as watered-down Italian food.
Little information can be garnered from the restaurant’s generic strip-mall façade, or from the classic dining room bedecked in dark wood and muted accents. A large flatscreen TV hovers over the bar playing a slideshow of dramatic Italian villas and vistas. Even the menu's antipasto platters, fritto misto, green salads and veal saltimbocca give the comforting impression that there’s not many risks being taken here.
But in the pasta section, clues start to arise signaling a more serious Italian heart in the kitchen than appearances would have you believe.
The restaurant, housed in the same shopping center on Cobb Parkway as Tomo and C&S Oyster Bar, opened quietly in January 2007. A year ago, Montobbio came onboard. The 26-year-old chef was lured from his native Italy to work under Piero Premoli at Pricci. Since then, he's held positions at Enoteca Carbonari and Neo before landing at Taverna Fiorentina.
Order correctly, and you'll taste the purity of the chef’s Italian roots. Start with the specials menu. On a recent night, a baby octopus salad presented soft, warm meat swathed in olive oil and accented with salty black olives. The specials menu also features an outrageously creamy risotto of the day, flavored with combinations that reveal an inventive spirit, such as subtle asparagus with calamari.
Light, fresh pastas showcase Montobbios' best work. Pappardelle with wild boar ragu balances hearty sauce with delicate pasta, and the boar exhibits a brightness of flavor that lifts the whole dish out of the heavy-and-rich zone.
The more common the dish to Italian-American restaurants, the less likely it is to delight. The saltimbocca was tender and flavorful but a tad overwrought. Roasted chicken verged on the oily side, and a porterhouse steak for two was lifeless and strangely dry despite the medium-rare cook on it. But tender baby lamb chops, served with potatoes and olives, garnered swoons and gobbling.
Bacon, which Montobbio works into his dishes in willfully unexpected places, alternately wows and disappoints. On the antipasto plate, a bowl holds a strange, dry mixture of cold, crispy pancetta and raisins. It looks like it was intended as trail mix for a special breed of pig-loving hedonist, yet its subtleties and addictive nature are a welcome surprise — the dark sugar of the raisins playing against the blunt, smoky crumble of pig. The same porcine crumble is used in an appealing-sounding beet salad also sporting raisins. Here, the combo falls flat, the dice of the beets too small, the other elements drowning in irrelevance.
The wine list, directed by co-owner Jasmin Reyes, is somewhat lopsided, with the bottom and top ends of the price spectrum well covered, but the middle a tad lacking. Still, there are some welcome Italian finds here, and a staff that knows its way around the list. A Grachetto from Umbria gives enough complex fruitiness to stand up to the risottos and pastas. The 2004 Tommaso Bussola Amarone delivers pure, pruny fruit perfectly suited to accompany the wild boar ragu or baby lamb chops.
Service ranges from flustered to suave, and I’ve encountered excessive kitchen wait times on what should be easy nights. Desserts aren't a strong point, and espresso drinks are disastrous. But the overall feeling is one of genuine hospitality, and where it really matters, Montobbio delivers. Peel back the layers of crowd-pleasing bric-a-brac and you’ll discover that Taverna Fiorentina is a gem of an Italian restaurant.
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