Fall in love with Italian food again at New Paltz’s A Tavola

It takes hope – or gall – to pad into a popular restaurant at 6 p.m. on Valentine’s Day (observed) without reservations. Yet up the few stone steps we went, through the familiar perpendicular doors to the hostess station beside the wide staircase. At A Tavola Trattoria at 46 Main Street in New Paltz, chef/owners Bonnie and Nathan Snow serve authentic pan-Italian fare composed from the best produce and proteins that the Hudson Valley has to offer à la minute. Their virtuosity will guarantee you a second date.

Bonnie Snow, who sheds her chef’s whites each evening to welcome guests “a tavola” (“at the table,” as in “Get to the table, pronto”), scanned the book and gently offered two accommodations: a table for two at 8:30 p.m. or immediate seating in the bar. O! bar seating, you are the purgatorial punishment for those who fail to plan! I was momentarily crestfallen, heart set on a seat in one of the two beautiful dining rooms populated by unmatched farm-kitchen tables and locally sourced antiques. Downstairs, there’s a prominent wine rack built by the owners, laden with affordable bottles of unique Italian varietals. Upstairs, great glass panes let in soft streetlight that casts leafy shadows on the walls.

But we were headed back, to the bar. This first-floor enclave is dark and handsome, mirrored, candlelit, and prominently features Tuthilltown Spirits and Italian aperitivi: Aperol, Cynar, Campari. Ours was a large, round wooden high-top tucked in the corner, where we ate the most exquisite four-course meal: far and away the best repast of my 30 Valentine’s Days. There’s not a bad table in the place. Then again, the Snows could serve their food on a piece of plywood set on sawhorses and still garner my rave review.

They met while working at authentic Italian mainstay Sfoglia, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The couple has over 18 years of experience as New York City chefs. “Sfoglia” means an uncut sheet of pasta; both restaurants make their own tagliatelle, ravioli, gnocchi et al. A Tavola serves house-baked bread – a signature sourdough – as well as a number of seasonal sorbetti and gelati: balsamic vinegar, salted caramel, Concord grape, hazelnut for winter. The Snows fell in love with the Hudson Valley over the course of a dozen years spent vacationing here, skydiving and antiquing, and became permanent residents in January 2011. Three months later, A Tavola opened in the space that was once Beso Restaurant & Bar. The dishes, representing rural Italy from the top of the cuff to the tip of the toe of the boot, are unprecedented.

The menu is arranged by course: antipasti, primi, secondi and dolci. While diners peruse, a pint-sized berry box lined with paper and crowded with four slices of warm bread arrives. The crust is salt-dusted, thick but penetrable. It is at once chewy and crispy, with an airy crumb, and if I could find someone to bake bread like this for me at home, I would fall in love and marry them. It may be dipped in a bread-plate pool of olive oil. That olive oils can be as complex as fine wines, I know; but don’t ask me to name the notes. It just tasted great to me.

For an antipasto, I am a devotee of the poached octopus ($12) with chickpeas, roasted peppers and taggia olives, a house specialty. But this meal demanded that old habits be overcome. Instead I tried the crispy pork belly confit ($12) with pickled apple, arugula, whole-grain mustard and apple cider glaze. The julienned apples were a tart/sweet counterpoint to the luscious pork belly. There were two large chunks of it: meat bookending its silken adiposity. My date had a kale Caesar ($9) with polenta croutons and boquerones. The leaves were lovely, dark and deep, almost black, and I got to steal the two perfect, misunderstood anchovy fillets that flavored the salad.

Next came the pasta, which is available in generous half-portions or entrée-sized. We shared the dish of the night, half-moons of fresh lobster ravioli, and an order of sweet potato gnocchi with wild boar ragu ($14/26). The latter had a thick sauce, which seemed necessary to anchor the feather-light sweet-potato pillows to the plate. It was everything that you’d want to eat when the weather outside is frightful: meat and sweet and the last little caramelized bits of both scraped up for the sauce. Our main courses were branzino fillet en cartoccio ($25) with whipped baccala, melted leeks and black olive pesto, and braised veal osso-bucco ($27) with saffron/potato purée, braised carrots and horseradish gremolata. “En cartoccio” is Italian for en papillote, which is French for baking in paper; and this particular Northern Italian sea bass was so delicate and delicious that it defied adjectival description. To capture the ecstasy with accuracy requires a small groan. The veal, accompanied by thin ovals of carrot and the satin potato purée, was similarly excellent.

Never make the mistake of skipping dessert – especially on Valentine’s Day. The tortino di cioccolato ($6) has a thick pine-nut crust, and is served with a dollop of apricot jam and a whipped-cream quenelle. Incorporate all elements onto a single spoon for the full effect. A Tavola bread pudding ($9), made with that wonderful house bread, currants, caramel and Tuaca (a vanilla citrus liqueur), takes a little longer to prepare and is served piping hot, dusted with powdered sugar. Adding a scoop of salted caramel gelato ($3) to the bread pudding will launch any evening into the stratosphere of sensuality.

Dinner for two, with cocktails, without gratuity, was $157 – and worth every penny. As to be anticipated, the rest of the night was spent in bed (though perhaps not in the manner that you’d expect). While the pacing of the meal was better than that of these few paragraphs – it took almost three hours – I still managed to overeat. I ate until I could barely move. The next morning, there was more of me to love, to the tune of three pounds: worth every ounce.

For more information on A Tavola or to make reservations, call (845) 255-1426 or visit atavolany.com. Dinner is served five nights a week, Thursday through Monday.


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