Diner: Offbeat Gem

Intimate, hip Tanino's Cafe in Covington is a foodie's heaven

Feb 21, 2002 at 2:06 pm

Thank goodness Antony Seta can't act. Oh, he tried. But when his acting dreams didn't come to fruition, he began working in restaurants to pay the bills. Luckily for us, he decided to make a career out of his culinary skills. Seta and his partner, Randy Cope, have opened an Italian offbeat gem in an off-the- beaten-path section of Covington — the kind of place I almost hate to write about, because I'd selfishly like to keep the place a secret.

The Scene
But I'm probably too late. I think the cat's already out of the bag, as they say. Weekend nights, folks are on a wait, and weekday diners are starting to fill the place up. And that's without a liquor license — yet. (Further renovations and permit issues have held things up, but the bar is coming, I was told.)

No matter, patrons are encouraged to tote in their favorite bottle of beer or wine for now.

The colorful neighborhood provides its own pre-dinner show, as we witnessed at our recent visit on a weekday evening. The biker wedding taking place in the storefront of the adjacent tattoo parlor helped set the mood for romance.

After months of renovations, Tanino's finally emerged last fall. Behind the bright red door on Madison Avenue, the partners' efforts paid off by breathing new life into the historic four-story building that's been everything from a drugstore to a casket warehouse. Inside, hardwood floors and mustard walls add warmth and depth. The original tin ceiling — now painted a bright blue — and brick wall retain historic character and charm. Art deco Italian posters and hip halogen track lighting strung from the ceiling give the place a contemporary feel. The eclectic collection works, even in the relatively small dining room that holds a mix of booths and four-top tables, creating an intimate, but not stuffy feel.

The front of the dining room hosts a small bar, where the smell of cappuccino and espresso fills the entrance.

The Scoop
Fortunately for us, the night started off poorly for Tanino's owners. Just prior to opening time, the cook told a server he was stepping out "to get a bite to eat" (that's a clue right there) and never came back. Enter Seta, stepping behind the line to cook up delicious meals as he intended them to be prepared when he created the café's menu.

Seta admitted after our meal that the Calamari ($7.95) we sampled was his creation, and that he'd modified the recipe on-the-spot that evening, taking some of the garlic out of his breading mix, allowing it to cook without burning. The seasonings were fantastic, truly lightly fried, and the tender squid was perfect, not at all chewy. The homemade marinara sauce (which we later learned is the same spicy marinara used in the Dante Ravioli) was full of flavor. Our only complaint: We ran out of sauce before the calamari was gone — most likely because we also dipped our fresh baked breadsticks into it.

Although entrées include either a house or Caesar salad, our server allowed us to try other selections from the menu for a small upgrade charge. The Caprese (normally $6.25) salad, a fresh mix of fragrant basil, mozzarella, tomatoes and roasted red peppers, drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, would have served two, if I'd been willing to share. Instead, my husband hoarded the evening's zuppa ($3.50), an Italian Brotta: a beef broth, rich with mushrooms, vegetables and tender chunks of duck.

Choosing an entrée was a chore, even with only seven on the dinner menu. We relied on our server to point us in the right direction. And, Magellan came through with his picks: creamy, rich, Pasta Carbonara ($10.95) is a bathtub full (OK, not really, but the bowl is huge) of linguini in a parmesan and asiago cheese cream sauce with salty panchetta, mushrooms and onions. Mind the description, as this dish is truly flavorful and rich, but even the leftovers held up. Saltimbocca ($16.95) also could have fed two (and did, the next day). The dish consists of two seasoned chicken breasts stuffed with prosciutto, parmesan cheese and herbs, then baked with asparagus on top of a cheesy bed of delicate orzo, topped with an artichoke and caper cream sauce.

After arguing over who had room to sample dessert, we settled on sharing a delicious, creamy, homemade chocolate mousse, piped into a delicate wine glass and topped with fresh whipped cream.

The Sizzle
Tanino's lunch menu is scaled back and includes pizzas, like Bianco, a classic white with pesto, garlic, cheese and olive oil ($8.50 for 9-inch; $19.50 for 16-inch). Wraparias are wrap sandwiches, such as Tuscan Chicken ($7.95), filled with grilled chicken, sundried tomatoes and cranberries. Soups and salads round out the lunch selections.

Seta shared that his mother has promised to make her lasagna as a dinner special once a week. You can bet Mama Seta's secret recipe will be a hit.

Dinner portions are generous and very reasonably priced. Service was attentive, friendly and knowledgeable. The owners graciously greet diners and sincerely express their gratitude. Any foodie will think they've died and went to heaven. But keep it a secret: I want to get a table on Saturday night.

Go: 114 Pike St., Covington

Call: 859-431-8575

Hours: Lunch: Tuesday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; Dinner: Tuesday-Thursday, Sunday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 6-10 p.m.

Prices: Reasonable to moderate

Payment: Major credit cards

Red Meat Alternatives: Salads, ravioli, salmon, modified pastas and nightly dinner specials often feature a fresh catch.

Other: No liquor license yet ... so BYOB. Free parking in lot across the street after 5 p.m.