Our out-of-town guest visiting last week from New York had a very specific request for his birthday dinner: He wanted Italian food every bit as flavorful as the kind he could enjoy back home.

And while as recently as ten years ago such a request might have induced panic (or pleas that he reconsider and opt for dinner at a steakhouse instead), these days our problem was the opposite: How could we pick just one restaurant from the many places serving up superb Italian food in Fort Worth these days?

Normally our first choice might have been Nonna Tata, Donatella Trotti’s shoebox-sized, Northern Italian gem on Magnolia Avenue, which specializes in fresh-made pastas, gorgeously presented antipasto plates and the greatest tagliata (thinly slice tenderloin) you will ever taste. But the night in question was a Monday, so Nonna Tata – which has only twenty or so seats inside, and serves lunch and dinner Tuesday to Friday, and occasionally dinner on Saturdays – was closed. Back to the drawing board.

Our next thought was Piola Restaurant and Garden, which cooks up more traditional Italian recipes – think eggplant parmigiano, veal picatta and so forth – inside a refurbished house in Fort Worth’s Cultural District. Our favorite thing about Piola is the sprawling outside patio, where we have spent many evenings sipping glasses of Prosecco and noshing on appetizers of bruschetta and giant calamari. The only problem: On the night of our guest's birthday, the weather wasn’t quite cooperating for al fresco dining, so we decided to visit Piola another time.

Still more options presented themselves: We thought of the everything-old-is-new-again Aventino’s, in west Fort Worth, which reopened in 2011 with a menu much like the original Aventino’s filled with Italian staples like baked ziti and chicken cacciatore. We also considered the more formal La Piazza, Vito Ciraci’s Fort Worth institution that in 2012 moved from its longtime home in University Park Village to a new spot in the West Seventh area.

But ultimately we settled on an Italian restaurant that split the difference on all counts. Taverna by Lombardi, located in downtown Fort Worth, is neither fussily formal nor overly casual, with classic Italian food that’s given an appealing nouveau twist. Our table of six started with a couple of generous servings of the wonderfully garlicky bruschetta. For our main courses, we tried the likes of the shrimp and pesto risotto; the scalloppine alla valdostana (chicken with ham, fontina cheese and white wine sauce); and scampi taglioni (taglioni pasta tossed with shrimp, garlic, white wine, and capers). 

Shrimp taglioni at Taverna     Bruschetta

As for the birthday boy, now seventy-one years young, he polished clean his plate of fettuccine frutti di mare (which features shrimp, mussels, clams and scallops) – and offered perhaps the best compliment a New Yorker can deliver: “I never would have thought I could find Italian food like this is Fort Worth.”

Now he just has to return for a few more birthday dinners so he can try all of the other great Italian restaurants in town.

[Featured Image: Taverna Fort Worth Facebook]