chef's table

SAVORY CLASSICS

At home in Italy at La Vecchia’s table.

WRITTEN BY SANDRA MACIAS
PHOTOS BY SHEA EVANS

chefs table 1

A regal risotto, it was. Creamy yet toothsome from the first bite to the last, it triggered a moment of savoring slowly, eyes closed. Yes, risotto at La Vecchia is perfection.

On any given night at this popular Reno restaurant, loyal locals gather, socializing around the bar or eating with gusto in the dining areas. The bar, backlit in a soft green glow, welcomes diners before they head to their tables. The dining space exudes earthy warmth with mushroom- and Chianti-colored walls, wood paneling and tables, and large bay windows that frame The Biggest Little City’s skyline.

A movable feast

La Vecchia hasn’t always been in this location. In 1990, proprietor/chef Alberto Gazzola opened La Vecchia Varese (named after his hometown in Northern Italy) on West Street in downtown Reno. The name shortened to La Vecchia in 1999 when it moved to the corner of Moana Lane and South Virginia Street. The reconfiguration of Moana Lane forced the move to its current spot, where it opened in 2012.

Moving a restaurant once (not to mention twice) is risky. But to Gazzola, it was an opportunity to design the eatery to fit his style. He gutted his new space, moving walls and adding contours. Gazzola, a traditional kind of guy, also paid homage to La Vecchia’s history by using recycled glass, wood, and light fixtures from the Moana restaurant in his remodel.

Chefs Table 2

Classic dishes

La Vecchia offers definitive Northern Italian food.

“Modern and progressive has its place,” says Gazzola, who was classically trained in Italy, “but traditional is what I like. I stick with what my customers want and what I am comfortable with.”

He is extremely at home with risotto — it’s among the best in town. A nightly special, the dish rotates in its preparation. One night it’s mushroom risotto or black Italian rice risotto with scallops; another night it’s risotto subtly blended with gorgonzola dolce (and coupled with a Berkshire pork chop) or quintessential risotto accompanied by falling-off-the-bone veal osso buco. The latter is especially popular.

“Customers call me to ask when I am going to make it next,” Gazzola says, then proudly adds, “I make it just like my mother did.”

Made-from-scratch ravioli — all pasta is house-made and never pre-cooked — is another four-star dish. Favorites include mushroom ravioli and pumpkin ravioli with sage butter and sausage ragù. For a taste, try the blockbuster Ravioli Night every Monday. For $20, you get salad, raviolis of your choice, a glass of wine, and dessert.

Other pasta dishes on the menu include classic spaghetti carbonara (where else do you find that?), linguine with clams, and pappardelle duck confit ragù, a dish of lasting popularity.

“My customers won’t let me take it off the menu,” Gazzola jokingly complains.

Seeking freshness

La Vecchia is part of the locavore community. The kitchen is stocked with ingredients straight from Italy, but fresh products come from closer quarters. Gazzola uses Produce Plus, a Lake Tahoe distributor dedicated to sourcing local and organic produce whenever possible. He buys sustainable fish and “incredible wild salmon and halibut” from “Ernie” (Ernest Camilleri, Gazzola’s source since 1992). He uses free-range and hormone-free chicken. And whenever he finds a good source for them, he serves grass-fed beef and veal.

Pizza and Caesar

Both the lunch and dinner menus offer pizzas, served sizzling from the wood-fired pizza oven. Margherita pizza gets a resounding thumbs up. The lunch menu also includes soups, salads (the Caesar here is not ubiquitous), panini, raviolis, and entrées. Plus, the kitchen focuses on getting food out in 15 minutes at lunchtime, Gazzola says.

Having arrived in Reno straight from Italy some 25 years ago, Gazzola says he personifies the American Dream. He couldn’t be happier “to end up exactly where my customers are.”

A Reno veteran food writer, Sandra Macias, who has eaten risotto in Italy and learned to cook it from a Reno Italian chef years ago, recognizes a perfectly cooked risotto when she tastes one. At La Vecchia, the dish is as close to Italy as one can get without flying there.

Resources

La Vecchia
3005 Skyline Blvd., Ste. 160, Reno, 775-825-1113, http://www.Lavecchiareno.com
Open for lunch, 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. Mon. – Sat.; dinner daily, 5 – 9 or 10 p.m. Reservations recommended, especially on weekends and Monday Ravioli Nights. Reservations also recommended if you wish to sit on the outside patio, with its stunning view overlooking Reno, when it opens in late spring or early summer.

Recipe

Spaghetti Checca

(A “how-simple-can-it-get?” pasta dish of three main ingredients, courtesy of La Vecchia’s chef/owner Alberto Gazzola. Serves 4)

1 pound spaghetti (De Cecco or Barilla brands suggested)

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus 1 to 2 tablespoons to finish

½ pint cherry tomatoes, halved (5 to 6 tomatoes per person)

2 8-ounce balls whole-milk mozzarella

Basil, for garnish

Salt and pepper, to taste

Cut one and a half mozzarella balls into small cubes. (Use remaining half for a pizza or panini.) Set aside.

Start pasta water, adding salt generously. Cook pasta to al dente (five to seven minutes, depending on brand).

While pasta is cooking, warm three tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil in large pan over medium heat until hot, but not smoking (extra-virgin olive oil has low flash/smoke point, so watch it carefully). Moving pan from fire, add halved cherry tomatoes. (If pan is on heat, hot oil may catch fire, giving your sauce an unpleasant metallic flavor.) Once bubbling has subsided, return pan to stove. Let tomatoes simmer for a few minutes, enough for them to soften without breaking open. Cook until sauce is slightly reduced. Season with sea salt and ground black pepper.

Add cooked spaghetti to pan and toss with cubed mozzarella and fresh basil, adding one to two more tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil and fresh ground black pepper.

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