In the last few months two new contenders for great red sauce fare, La Tabella on James Island and Alessandra's in Summerville, have opened to great applause — and the initial buzz is certainly warranted.
Both of these shops could have hopped out of the North End of Boston. They share the classic devices that make them so recognizable as red sauce palaces, sporting everything but the checked tablecloths. And they do the classics well. Mussels in multiple preparations are cooked competently. Veal and chicken cutlets are transformed in numerous guises. Crispy calamari comes with a side of marinara. A gigantic bowl of macaroni comes topped with red gravy, melted mozzarella, and a three-inch wide meatball.
La Tabella and Alessandra's each have their own distinctive flair and show enough individual character to make a trip to both worthwhile.
La Tabella, which took over the failed Lombardi's spot in the Piggly Wiggly shopping strip on Harbor View Road, has updated and improved the space significantly. The awkward walls that subdivided the front of the house have been torn away and replaced with an inviting bar. It is old school, with inverted glasses hanging from wooden rails. There is a big common table just in front, and rows of booths that stretch beyond the now fully enclosed kitchen. The menu moves through the veal and sauce adeptly. The veal picatta ($17.95) is excellent, the tart, garlicky butter sauce overflowing with sautéed capers and the thin cutlet not overcooked in the slightest. It is tender and delicious, a good sign in an "affordable" Italian-American spot — because all too often, these types of places serve meat like shoe leather at ridiculous prices.
Even the ribeye steak ($20.95) is great, covered with peppers and onions and surfing a pile of fluffy mashed potatoes, but it's the creative fare that deserves notice — most especially the pork osso bucco (($19.95) is served as an entire pork shank, lovingly braised until fork tender, napped in red sauce, and perched atop a pile of delicious vegetable risotto. The dish is so large, and so unremittingly rich, that it's almost impossible to finish the whole thing.
Pair all of this with a decent wine selection and some very friendly neighborhood service, with the owners constantly a step away, and James Island has a new favorite.
Way up north, on the end of the pedestrian walkway known as "Short Central," Summerville has its own new neighborhood spot. Sporting a chic interior left over from the former client, Alessandra's provides a fine place for a business lunch or a leisurely family dinner. They also serve all of the classics for dinner and lunch, plating up some of the best, most perfectly cooked calamari rings ($7.99) that we have ever tasted, and tossing big bowls of spaghetti with a rich, house-made marinara. We especially love the penne alla vodka ($8.99/$12.99), perfectly cooked pasta with a rich pasta cream sauce for under 10 bucks.
Also unctuous and rich is the gnocchi alla Sorrentina ($8.99/$12.99), light and fluffy, with that excellent marinara and melted cheese on top. There are individual pizzas and fluffy calzones for eight or nine dollars, and big, delicious sandwiches, like the eggplant parmigiana ($9). Almost all of the wine selections are Italian, and the service is adept and very attentive, if sometimes immature (servers probably shouldn't play grab-ass in the dining room).
So hooray for red sauce, and its quality purveyors. And thank you to the people who have weathered this economy by demanding good, home-style food again. They represent what makes a restaurant great. Here are people who spend all day trying to put grandma's love into a commercial product. They are our neighbors, and the friendly service at places like La Tabella and Alessandra's shows that they care. The owners are most likely in the dining room, ready to come by and check on your satisfaction as you eat your wonderful meal, and leave fat and happy with the rest of your neighbors. What more can you wish for?