If the name La Fontana rings your dinner bell, it should, as chef Gary Langevin operated a restaurant under the same name on Sam Rittenberg Boulevard a few years ago.
If Langevin sounds familiar, he should, as this prolific chef with roots in Naples, Italy, has operated Bella Napoli on Ashley River Road, Bella Napoli in North Charleston and Cuoco Pazzo in Mount Pleasant. La famiglia si espande -- the family is expanding.
In 2011, Langevin's sister, Veronica Langevin, opened La Fontana in a former Pizza Hut location on Savannah Highway in West Ashley. A three-month renovation resulted in cozy booths, a comfortable banquette that allows for quick conversion for large parties and an eclectic decorating mix that celebrates the chef's accomplishments as well as Lowcountry grillwork, Italian prints and a hodgepodge of tchotchkes that we refer to as "nonna's basement style" of decorating -- a little of this, a little of that.
The entrance opens into the restaurant proper and would benefit from the addition of a foyer or, at minimum, a decorative screen to shelter the seating area.
La Fontana is the hyphenated food of the Italian-American table: The red sauces and stuffed pastas that say old school. Do not expect crudo, mostarda, guanciale, priest stranglers, cured lardo or vialone nano. Here you will find the cucina di povera -- the foods of the poor -- carried on the backs of the immigrant and set forth at the table in America.
The menu closely mirrors what you will find at Bella Napoli and Cuoco Pazzo. Your meal begins with friendly service, soft bread and a bottle of ruddy-colored oil seasoned with sun-dried tomatoes, garlic and herbs.
Pass on the bruschetta ($6.95) and caprese ($9.95) during the winter months and stick to cold-weather favorites such as stracciatella ($4.50) perfumed with roasted garlic and laced with egg, spinach and Parmesan cheese. Or go for the eggplant ($9.95) stuffed with ricotta and mozzarella that lends itself to a shared first course or a vegetarian entree.
Generous portions of mussels or clams ($9.95) can be ordered sauced with white wine or tomato sauce. The wine sauce was flabby, needing acid from either wine or lemon, but the mussels were tender and plump with no trace of grit.
A simple salad ($4.95) of spring mix and Roma tomatoes, dressed with a sweet raspberry vinaigrette, is a culinary disconnect from the flavors of Southern Italy. The Caesar ($5.95) fared no better in its dressing, which lacked the salty boldness of anchovy and the bracing citrus of fresh lemon.
Pastas can be topped with meatballs, sausage, chicken or shrimp for an additional $4. They are served piping hot on warmed plates, but most are overcooked.
Portions are substantial and complete meals in themselves. It would be good to see half-portions on the menu.
Ravioli ($13.95) and manicotti ($12.95) are "homemade" and lasagna ($13.95) layered with meaty ragu and rich besciamella can easily be shared.
Entrees are accompanied by a side of pasta or a vegetable. The pasta at the time of our visit was spaghetti, and its garlic and wine sugo (sauce) did not glide but glued the over-cooked pasta to the plate, whether it was accompanying a veal dish ($18.95) or part of scampi ($16.95).
The pantheon of chicken and veal classics, piccata, Marsala, parmigiana and saltimbocca, are all represented. Grilled steak ($17.95) and sausage ($15.95) and a few shellfish dishes round out the menu.
The sauces at La Fontana were heavy. The pastas were blanketed in thick sugo, and the herbs of basil and sage and parsley were strangely silent.
Yet our neighbors cleaned their plates. Comforted with the abundance of the portions at La Fontana and charmed by the friendly staff, it was easy to see why La Fontana succeeds. Expect to see the chef and entourage parade through the dining room. Sometimes, there will be singing. Always, there is the friendliness of the Italian nature at the table -- generous, sincere and giving.
Much of what we consider the Italian-American recipe canon are dishes of adaptation. Through innovation in America and the resourcefulness of the Italian immigrant cooks, what we call "macaroni" is a tribute to them. It is this expression of Southern Italian cooking that you will find at all the Langevin restaurants. For him, it is a recipe for success.