“The soul of Italian cooking is simplicity,” says Alberto Gazzola, the man behind La Vecchia, which first opened in 1990 on West Street in downtown Reno. Gazzolo first put on an apron when he was 16 and working in his family’s Panini shops in Verese, Italy, near Milan. In 1989, he moved to Reno.
The restaurant’s new location, the former Skyline Café, with a million-dollar view on Skyline, is the third incarnation of the eatery. The Regional Transit Commission’s widening of Moana forced him to move from the corner of that street and Virginia Street.
The complete remodeled interior presents a comfortable bistro with wood tables, padded chairs, and booth-backs lining the walls. There’s a full bar, and the rest of the lounge offers high-top tables. There’s a small, private dining room off the bar. This upscale establishment seats 100. In a few weeks, with the warm weather, patio seating will open overlooking the Reno skyline.
The smartly dressed staff knows what to do, and the touches of class, like linen napkins, are nice. Fresh bread, olive oil and Balsamic are served almost immediately, and fresh cut garlic in oil is there for the asking.
The dinner menu ($16 – $18) is a la carte and well appointed with classic Northern Italian offerings. Simplistically, the difference between Northern and Southern Italian food is that in the North, butter and cream are common, with more of a European influence. In the South, it’s olive oil, tomatoes and seafood, with a Mediterranean flair.
My insalata tiepida (hot salad, $8) was an excellent example of the European influence. It was full leaves of Romaine lettuce formed into a six-inch boat filled with Gorgonzola cheese and topped with whole walnuts, then put under a broiler to melt the cheese into a cream filling with attitude. The salty bite of the warm Gorgonzola, accented with a nut crunch held together with the noble leaf was a texture trifecta with mouth-watering appeal.
For the entrée, it was the pappardelle al ragu d’anatra ($17). Pappardelle are large, very broad fettuccine. The name derives from the verb “pappare,” to gobble up. The raga d’anatra is a duck stew. It was prepared by salting the duck, cooking it slowly in its own natural juices, removing the meat, adding porcini mushrooms and some Chianti, a little rosemary, a dash of heavy cream, and then letting this all reduce before tossing with the noodles.
The egg noodles were moist and not too al dente—over-cooking pasta will ruin all the flavors in a dish. This was perfect. The soft, succulent and savory duck with a hint of sweetness, fused with the mushrooms, created a rich, yet not overwhelming, ragout surrounding the noodles.
The by-the-glass list is fair ($5-$11). I chose the Zenato Valpolicella ($9), a grape that is arguably the most famous red wine to come out of the Veneto wine region in Northeastern Italy. Good mouth texture with good acidity and medium tannins. Cherries and oak on the palate that holds to the finish. And yes, there are traditional desserts, like tiramisu ($6), and panna cotta ($6), but I was happy and smart enough to stop.
A late-night menu kicks off in a few weeks including a Neapolitan pizza—thin, light crust, delicate sauce and Mozzarella.
It has been said that in cooking, as in all the arts, simplicity is the sign of perfection. Alberto Gazzola has embraced that concept and what he has done with La Vecchia puts him well on his way to that goal.