The dining room of the La Tavola revamp is sparking with conversation as patrons dip into the polenta-bedded saltimboca or scoop up a luscious bite of panna cotta, crunchy with pistachios and sweet-sour amarene cherries. The lights are low and amber lagers glow in their glasses. Old portraits of families in somber black and white look down upon the crowd.
Backstage, however, is a different tableau. As chef Rick Lopez executes velvety risotto and airy gnocchi, a bust of Elvis watches over the kitchen. His daughter Vivianna is showing off her hip-hop moves, while younger sib Chiara (Kiki) is zig-zagging through the office area on a razor scooter, her sparkly silver shoes catching the twinkly lights of the wheels. Family matriarch, Krista, is giving a tour, making sure to highlight the bright yellow swing in the cavernous storage area.
“Every business should have a swing,” she laughed, and then gets semi-serious. “It helps to remember that we’re all kids and that life is fun.”
Many words have been written about Rick and his passion for turning his kitchen into a beacon of fresh, local, and original recipes. Krista has been by his side since their first restaurant, Crescendo Pastaria, opened in 1996 on the heels of the couple’s honeymoon in Italy. “I majored in fashion merchandising at OSU, so I come from the retail world,” she recalled. “I realized that if I ever wanted to see Rick, I would have to go to the restaurant and help.” At the time, Krista explained, Rick was doing everything himself – hand-making the focaccia and the desserts, roasting Roma tomatoes for marinara.
“I thought there would be no difference between retail and restaurant work,” she giggled at her huge misconception. “Selling shoes, selling food.” Krista started baking the bread and then added desserts to her growing talents. “When you find something you love to do, it shows through in whatever you’re creating.”
“Baking is like giving birth to things – bread has a life to it – so much affects it, if it’s a good day, you see it in the bread. There’s a lot of love going on.”
Krista didn’t come to baking as a recipe virgin, however. Growing up in Westerville, her mother was a home economics teacher and made every meal from scratch. “We always sat down and had dinner together, that was important,” she smiled. “I had no idea there was such a thing as instant mashed potatoes until I went to college.” As a throwback to both their childhood traditions of eating at the table, La Tavola will be hosting Sunday Suppers featuring family food such as chicken parm, spaghetti and meatballs, and cheese lasagna.
As Krista reminisces about the family table and jokes about discovering shameless food in college, Rick and Chiara are making chitarra pasta together. Rick weights the dough, rolls it out, and Chiara pushes it through a finely strung wooden box that is reminiscent of guitar strings – chitarra means “guitar” in Italian. She stands on a stool, wearing Krista’s black and white engineer’s cap, and Rick wraps his arms around her, helping to press the stubborn dough through the wires. “The other day, Rick was telling Kiki that his gramma taught him how to do that,” she said, eyes tearing behind her cat-eye glasses. “He said, ‘One day I’ll be gone and this is how you will think of me.’”
Krista makes the rich biga Italian bread each day with a starter that does not need to be fed and coddled like others. “I’m too lazy and busy for that – I have plants and children, I don’t need a starter to feed.” For desserts, inspiration comes from volleying ideas back and forth with her husband. When a dish is created that is just amazing, Krista lets Rick know with a whack. When he made the bacala cake, a salt cod breaded and fried with lemon aioli and capers, “I punched him! It is that good.”
“It’s very fortunate that Rick and I can do something we love and make money,” she said. “We’re together and we want to do it – we realized we are stronger together than apart, like the Wonder Twins.”
La Tavola is located at 1664 W First Ave. in Grandview, and is currently open for dinner every day except Monday. For more information, check the Facebook page or call (614) 914-5455.