Modern famiglia

Neira Huerta and Edgar Aldana enjoy the all important bread course at La Famiglia.

Neira Huerta and Edgar Aldana enjoy the all important bread course at La Famiglia.

Photo By tracie douglas

La Famiglia Ristorante Italiano is open Monday through Saturday starting at 5 p.m. Reservations requested.

There are Ferraris and Lamborghinis, extraordinary cars, and then there are Bugattis. All three are famous Italian racing icons, but it’s the Bugatti that noticeably focused on design and is considered to be a true work of art. There are many good Italian restaurants in Reno, and then there is La Famiglia, where the design of the food is the culinary equivalent of the Bugatti, a true work of art on every plate.

Paulo Gaspari started in the restaurant business when he was 14 years old, leaving his home in Portofino, Italy, to work in Switzerland, Paris, and the Savoy in London. At 17, he joined the cruise ship industry, where he held management positions for 21 years including a stint on the Love Boat owned by Princess Cruise lines. When he docked in San Francisco a little over three decades ago, he decided to stay, spending four years in the City by the Bay.

Arriving in Reno in December 1985, he was first in the motel business—the Riviera—then opened a deli on Moana Lane. Next, was the original Portofino, where Lulu’s is today, then La Famiglia at First and Lake streets in 2005, then moving to its current locale four years ago. Proper linens and table clothes in the 85-seat main dining room, with a private room for 35, make it cozy and inviting. There’s a full bar and a congenial wait staff who have been trained to pay attention.

I had to start with the vegetable minestrone ($5) because Gaspari makes it himself. Minestrone is a thick soup of Italian origin made with vegetables. His ingredients include beans, leeks, celery, carrots, garlic, cabbage, peas in stock. Then about halfway through the cooking process, he adds a half-cup of olive oil. There is no set recipe for minestrone, since it is usually made out of whatever vegetables are in season.

It’s a rich, hearty soup with savory flavors all through your mouth. It’s satisfying and could easily be a meal itself, great anytime but especially when it’s cold outside. I happen to love linguini vongole ($20), and if you do, too, then order linguine with white clam sauce—this is the place to go to. They have a no-fail recipe, the pasta made al dente, a broth so rich with clam flavor and butter, you’d want to finish it with your spoon like soup, and fresh clams. Gaspari wouldn’t tell me the exact recipe, but white wine, garlic, butter, clams, shells, broth and pepper flakes were all found on the palate. There are desserts made by Gaspari’s wife, Teresa, that are pure poetry: tiramisu, fresh fruit and cheesecakes ($7).

It’s a complete menu, with pastas ($15-$29), fish ($20-$34)—the cioppino is nirvana ($34)—chicken ($18-$21), veal ($22-$23), steak and lamb ($25-$33). There are weekly specials ($8-$27), and a whole wheat spaghetti primavera ($16). The wine list is nice with fair prices, a great new world offering and selected Italian brands. There’s a limited by-the-glass menu ($6-$7), but I found a great value wine, 2010 Antinori Santa Cristina ($7).

This has to be one of the better valued Super Tuscans on the market right now. The renowned house of Antinori has amped up the backbone on Santa Cristina and what used to be a lighter red, now has some solid structure to it. Still, it’s a pretty straightforward red fruit-based wine, with hints of smoke, brown sugar and anise surrounding the fruit core.

Unfortunately, they don’t build classic Bugattis anymore. Fortunately, La Famiglia has captured the art, pride and heritage of this legendary Italian masterpiece and perpetuates a tradition in every dish.