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Main Street’s Taverna Delivers on the Success of Capers & Lemons

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Taverna

121 E. Main St.
Newark
444-4334

Prices:
Appetizers, soups,
  salads $6-$11
pizzas $13-$15
entrées $17-$25

Recommended:
Veal meatballs,
spinach-ricotta agnolotti,
canneloni,
butterscotch budino

Who are you going after, the students or the teachers?”

For anyone planning a restaurant on Newark’s Main Street, the downtown pulse of the University of Delaware—it’s a question that needs answering. Beer and nachos or wine and cheese? Suits and ties or sweatpants and Uggs?

You can’t usually have both. Unless of course you happen to be Carl Georigi and the Platinum Dining Group.

“Our mission was to create an environment that’s warm and comfortable,” he says, “with food that’s well-prepared and approachable. Whoever that appeals to that’s who we’re going after.”

Sixteen years after forming his company, the charismatic CEO is like a veteran card-counter at a blackjack table, drawing on proven methods, trusting a philosophy that works, and avoiding unnecessary risks to beat an inherently unfair game. With his latest hand, the rustic Italian-influenced Taverna in Newark, Georigi doubled down and bet high, building on the success of his wildly popular Capers & Lemons in Wilmington.

With another whip-smart waitstaff, another enchanting atmosphere, and another arsenal of homemade pastas at Taverna, Georigi and his team are beginning to make this all look too easy.

Taverna, which opened last fall, can be viewed as Capers & Lemons overspill. And why not? The hotspot, opened in 2009, is still one of the hottest tickets around thanks to its chic, artful adaptations of simple Italian recipes like mushroom tortelloni bathed in truffle butter, or spicy capicola-filled braciole.

The chicken pizza is topped with roasted tomatoes, spinach, goat cheese and chili oil. For the UD student body (or their visiting parents, professors, and other adult-type people found on the suddenly gentrified little pocket of Newark’s Main Street), this is all very good news. Because Taverna means even more of what Platinum Dining Group does best, polished and elevated to its next logical level.

Foremost, it means more great pasta, like the homemade and tightly bound half-moon bundles of spinach ricotta agnolotti, toothsomely al dente and bursting with well-developed flavor. Harmonizing tones of woody shiitake mushrooms, truffle butter, and a whisper of lemon show that chef Jeff Matyger—a former Capers & Lemons sous chef, who worked his way up from pizza cook—can take his boss’ best traditions even further.

Like its predecessor, Taverna doesn’t blaze new trails with its food, and nouvelle cuisine it’s not. What it may lack in innovation, Taverna makes up for in execution; solid, repeatable execution. Familiar dishes like gnocchi or spaghetti and meatballs arrived in pristine bundles, clad in slow-simmered, well-developed flavors and pinpoint textures.

It makes the spaghetti and meatballs here simply better than most everywhere else: the spaghetti, hand-cranked and firm, scoffed at its dried and boxed compatriots. The meatballs, forged of stunning white veal, were spongecake-tender, their gamey zing coated by crushed tomatoes and thick Parmesan shavings.

So too did the freshness of homemade canneloni noodles ring out amidst its rich filling of shredded chicken, prosciutto and fontina cheese, and its even richer spinach-cream topping. The decadent roll-ups developed pockets where cheese and dough had gone crispy in the oven, providing a pleasing textural counterweight.

Nailing the perfect texture for gnocchi is always a high-wire act, but Matyger’s team managed to stick the landing with soft, starchy bundles that merely flirted with chewiness. The same firm bite helped give some backbone to calamarata, mammoth tube pasta noodles that mingled with chicken chunks, tomato-cream sauce, and barely wilted leaves of spinach.

Chef Jeff Matyger pulls a freshly baked pie from Taverna’s coal-fueled oven.

For all its achievement in texture, Taverna occasionally missed the target. Ricotta and manicotti-filled crepes marked one of the few dishes that felt overloaded. The thin pancakes bulged with melty cheeses, and drooped under the weight of marinara sauce and even more melted cheese. Elsewhere, nicely fried pockets of polenta lost their crisp beneath a glop of mushroom ragout.

It could be Taverna’s coal-fueled oven needs a bit more fine tuning, but I found my pizzas merely OK when compared to the crispy, slightly blackened pies found at Capers & Lemons. Uptown toppings like shaved meatball slices, shiitake mushrooms and prosciutto lent ample flavor, but the pizzas lacked bite—that crispy crackle one anticipates from dough cooked in a 900-degree oven.

Taverna always regained its composure by the time dessert arrived. The delicious but meager selection of gelato—including my favorite, the nutty and robust pistachio—is made from Hy-Point Dairy, and easily competes with that other gelato place on Main Street. And the light and airy bombolini—fried mini-doughnuts whose “bomb” etymology is no coincidence—reached sugary hyperdrive by way of cinnamon-sugar coating and raspberry drizzle.

I quaked in anticipation of Taverna’s tiramisu—the same stuff served at Capers & Lemons, and for a few years now my favorite dessert in the state. Thankfully it arrived in Newark just as I’d remembered it, disarmingly light and addictive—not too soggy, not too sweet, the perfectly constructed tower of espresso-kissed ladyfingers, mascarpone, whipped cream and shaved chocolate.

But here’s the kicker: Taverna’s sinful budino may have knocked the king from its throne. From its tiny mason jar, the budino launches an incapacitating assault—layers of thick butterscotch custard, a deluge of salted caramel, mounds of whipped cream and tatters of chocolate cookie crumble made every bite taste like the perfect bite.

Great desserts are quickly becoming another trademark of the Platinum Dining Group, joining the company’s attention to decor and front-of-house service on the mantel. Where Capers & Lemons felt big-city chic and glitzy, and RedFire Grill, the company’s ode to old-school steakhouses, felt sexy and shadowy, Taverna is wonderfully dressed down.

Rustic and distressed, the dining room mimics an Italian farmhouse, replete with reclaimed brick and wood, barn door shutters, and lots of calming whites, beiges and tans.

There is a noticeable lack of artwork or busy decoration. Instead, a few white candles perch on shelves, and chandeliers overhead are constructed with wrought iron and lengths of rope. It creates a tranquil, open feel, bolstered by a mammoth open kitchen that provides sightlines to a bustling cook staff, and the coal-fired pizza oven.

The setting gives Taverna’s waitstaff ample opportunity to extend its polished brand of hospitality, and, uniformed in cheeky black tees (“Tap that Glass” read one), the youthful crew was superb. A great deal of credit belongs to general manager Bryan Jariwala, who’s manned Platinum’s restaurants since 2000 with aplomb and professionalism.

Service is not the goal; hospitality is. And there is a difference.

His servers cannot only recite the features of Taverna’s temperature-controlled kegged wine system, and the gospel of freshly made pasta, but their favorite dishes, and why another piece of tiramisu is a great idea. For the successful crew of Platinum Dining Group, repetition is the mother of all learning.  


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