Taverna: An unforgettable Italian experience right here in Laguna

Story and photos by DIANNE RUSSELL

The minute I open the door of Taverna, savory fragrances envelop me in haze of memories. I’m immediately taken back to an incredible pasta dish I had in Venice 34 years ago. A long time, I know.

Such odor/memory links are known as the “Proust Phenomenon” in honor of Marcel Proust, the French writer who spoke lyrically about the strength of memories evoked by smell, and never has this sensation been more evident to me. 

But this isn’t Italy, this is Laguna Beach, and my husband Ron and I are in for a treat that exceeds the café in Venice. Our palates just don’t know it yet. 

Steven, the general manager, greets us, and we decide to sit inside. 

Now that the weather is cooling, Taverna, with its comfortable and cozy atmosphere, is the perfect place to dine. The patio is also delightful (and has heaters), but on this visit, we opt for inside and the rustic and warm ambiance. I’ve dined on the patio with friends often before. (As a bonus, they allow dogs on the patio.)

Our server Mike, who has been with Taverna since July of 2017, knows quite a lot about the restaurant. It resides in the restored Laguna Federal Savings and Loan Building, and the three unique murals (from the 1940s) in the patio area were uncovered during the renovation. 

Click on photo for larger image

One of three murals from the 1940s in Taverna’s restored patio

Taverna is part of Lombardi’s Family Concepts, which is headquartered in Dallas, and this is their first restaurant in California (it opened in March of 2016). They have additional locations in Las Vegas, Austin, Houston, and Akumal, MX. Specializing in Northern Italian cuisine, each restaurant creates its own dishes from scratch.

Mike tells us about the specials for the day. For once, I realize I’m not straining to hear what the server is saying. One of my pet peeves is the high noise level in some restaurants, but that is absent here, and Mike points out the many sound absorbers installed on the beamed ceiling. 

One of the dishes he mentions is Scallop Risotto, and since Taverna is known as a “risotteria,” and it appears to be a signature dish, Ron decides on that one. Their expertise in risotto is widespread, they use only Carnaroli grain, which maintains its shape during the slow cooking process that produces enviable risotto. 

And just because I love eggplant, I order the Eggplant Parmigiana. 

Mike brings each of us a glass of wine, Pinot Noir for Ron, and a Sauvignon Blanc for me, and turns out, each is an apt pairing for our selections. 

Because the servings are ample, we decide to split a Burrata Salad, which was exactly the right choice. 

Burrata salad with heirloom tomatoes, arugula, basil and Tuscan olive oil

If I wasn’t aware that Taverna doesn’t have a farm out their back door, I would have guessed the tomatoes, arugula, and basil were directly from backyard farm to table. Rarely have I tasted salad ingredients so fresh and full of taste. And I don’t even know what to say about the Burrata, (obviously, they don’t have a cow anywhere nearby either). Burrata means “butter” in Italian, and this offering was fresh cheese at its best, creamy and rich.

To accompany it, they present a basket of warm rosemary bread and a crock of spread made from garbanzo beans, pesto, pine nuts, garlic and basil.  A delicious and unexpected blend of Greek and Italian. And, of course, the traditional balsamic vinegar and olive oil, but taken up several notches.

But the best was yet to come.

It’s no fluke that Taverna is known as a “risotteria.”  The Scallop Risotto is a dish to die for – or to die after – since this might be a good choice for my last meal (if I knew ahead of time it was to be my last meal). Although I loved my Eggplant Parmigiana, I commandeered a considerable amount of Ron’s dinner.

Scallops Risotto, risotto at its finest

Not only were the scallops cooked to perfection, silky and tender, but the asparagus shavings gave the dish a nice crunch. The risotto, as sublime and skillful as it gets, was smooth and laced with nutty parmesan, just enough to complement the other ingredients. Each bite was a tapestry of flavors.

The Eggplant Parmigiana was the best I’ve tasted, a tower of meaty eggplant slices, layered with, but not overpowered by a superb sauce. It was accompanied by a side of pasta with Pomodoro sauce which was also wonderful. 

Layers of meaty eggplant and heavenly sauce

At this point, anyone else would turn down dessert, but not us.

At Mike’s suggestion, we order the Chocolate Hazelnut Budino, which he describes as a chocolate lava cake, but it’s so much more. It’s topped with a giandula sauce, whipped cream and vanilla gelato. The crispy edges of the cake and its fudgy center, combined with the gelato, is more than any chocolate lover could ever hope for. 

A chocolate lover’s delight

No matter how amazing the food is, the server can either make or break a dining experience, and Mike made the evening an extremely pleasurable one. He was welcoming and gracious, answering all our many questions about the restaurant and the food with patience and expertise. 

To cap off the dinner, Steven brings us a glass of Limoncello, and we all toast the New Year. This night couldn’t have been a better introduction to 2018.

The memory of that long-ago pasta meal in Venice has now been upstaged by the food experience we had at Taverna. And, for us, traveling to Laguna Beach (rather than Italy) doesn’t require planes, trains, or even automobiles. Well, maybe sometimes automobiles.

Ron says as we leave, “That was a magical experience.” 

And I have to agree with my husband. Just this one time.

Taverna is located at 222 Ocean Ave., 949-715-0821. 

For information about brunch, happy hour, and hours of operation, go to www.tavernabylombardi.com

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