Simple, Classic Italian Cuisine
Dinner at Larchmont’s La Villetta pleases, but be sure to stick to the tried-and-true dishes.
You’ve probably been to restaurants that feel just like La Villetta: Italian restaurants with gracious and friendly servers, an accessible and appealing menu, a convivial (if slightly formal) atmosphere, and prices that keep your expectations high.
In fact, our experience at La Villetta lived up to our expectations with much, but not all, of what we tasted. The service was universally good; waiters were efficient and charming, though a bit chatty. In the small dining room, keen-eyed servers kept a close watch: water glasses were always filled and other needs consistently met.
But good service can’t right a dish gone wrong. Our fried sardines were (presumably intentionally) served chilled, and nothing good can be said about cold batter-fried fish. Nothing. Carpaccio was also served too cold to enjoy—and the delicate flavor of the meat was obscured by the heavy-handed use of white truffle oil.
On the other hand, mussels served in a lovely saffron-tomato broth made a thoroughly enjoyable starter. There was no fancy footwork to this dish, and nothing unusual—it was a good rendition of a classic. And that, in a nutshell, describes the best of La Villetta: the dishes that are simply, and classically, prepared.
Co-owner Francesco Coli says, “Ingredients make the dish—we try not to overdo our part in it.” He and his father, Pasquale, La Villetta’s chef, believe the strength of their restaurant is its fish dishes, and, with the exception of the sardines, we agree.
The orata (also known as royal dorade) was prepared “Sicilian style”: a robust topping of artichokes, capers, olives, and tomatoes managed to enhance, rather than overwhelm, the succulent, meaty fish. It is a dish we’d return for—but we’d have to call ahead. All the seafood dishes change daily based on the market.
If you’re lucky, halibut with fennel will be on the menu the night you visit. A true testament to “less is more,” this simple dish is just lightly seasoned halibut roasted over thinly sliced fennel, with a little white wine and some herbs.
While many of the starters we sampled were disappointing—stuffed artichoke hearts came across as mushy, not “tender”—we found a delicious alternative. The pastas are available in half-portions, and all made tasty (if not hefty) appetizers. From light, tender gnocchi to an intoxicating, rich porcini risotto finished with a touch of white truffle oil to linguine with clams, each was a fine example of a classic dish—and all (in regular-sized portions) would have made equally satisfying main courses.
We had mixed fortune with the non-fish main dishes. Calves’ liver was cooked to perfection and sauced with a perfectly well-balanced and complementary balsamic reduction. A grilled veal chop was juicy, tender, and tasty, once we scraped off the overwhelming portabella-mushroom topping and sauce.
And then there were the desserts. A pasty, heavy cheesecake has been taken off the menu since our visits—a wise choice. We were intrigued by the idea of a panna cotta on the menu that is served flambÃ©ed, but we’re still a little baffled by what the fire accomplishes, other than fun tableside drama. No matter, though; the panna cotta was a lovely version of the classic custard—a homey dish despite all the flourish. Speaking of flourish, go for broke and order the profiteroles. If for no other reason, it is great fun to witness the stagy pouring, from high above the waiter’s head, of the deep, rich chocolate sauce over the profiteroles. The sauce was a little overwhelming to eat—could there be such a thing as too much chocolate sauce?
When La Villetta focuses on simplicity and ingredients, the food is at its best. It is only when it tries to be something it is not, or to turn dishes into something they are not, that there are gaffes. Having a really good meal at La Villetta is a matter of ordering classic, simple dishes and enjoying the pleasant and attentive service.
7 Madison Ave., Larchmont
Lunch, Mon to Fri. 12-3 pm,
Dinner, Mon. to Fri., 5:30-9 pm, Sat. 5:30-10:30 pm.
Closed Sundays except for private parties.