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La Taverna di Gavi's French entrées will delight your palate

Last May, Gavi Colaleo realized that maybe he was running too many Italian restaurants in Tucson--especially at Kolb Road and Sunrise Drive, where he had two restaurants competing with each other on opposite sides of the street.

So Colaleo revamped the smaller outlet as a half-Italian, half-French bistro called La Taverna. He retained the relaxed atmosphere of the dozen-table dining room, but took down most of the soccer jerseys and replaced them with a framed map of France to emphasize the restaurant's new fare.

Although the local Gavi chain made its name with tasty Italian food, a recent visit suggests that the French part of La Taverna's menu actually has greater character.

Gavi's entrée portions have always been generous, so we bypassed the appetizers and soups, tempting though they were--duck breasts with a cherry glaze ($20), escargot ($18), the traditional misto of cold cuts and cheese ($14), a salad involving artichokes and fava beans ($15) and much more, including skinny French-style pommes frites ($6). The wise Gavi diner saves room for the main course.

Not that one ever has to start cold. Literally. Our server presented us with complimentary portions of warm, creamy artichoke bisque served in cordial glasses. This arrived along with the usual servings of spighe bread, available for consumption either with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, or with toppings of caponata (eggplant and tomato) and peppernata (fairly spicy roasted peppers).

In the past, Gavi's Italian dishes have tended to be quite salty, which is how the food is dished up in many restaurants in Italy, but it can seem a little excessive to Americans who are trying to limit their sodium intake. During our recent visit, La Taverna's kitchen staff had gotten the salt shaker under control, so it was easier to appreciate each dish's inherent flavor.

Unfortunately, that flavor tended to be the same for each of the three Italian entrées we tried.

Each employed a variation on Gavi's standard tomato-cream sauce (a richer alternative to marinara). It's a bit heavy, as you'd expect, but not overbearing. Still, it imposed a rather generic character on every dish on the Italian side of our table. This was especially disappointing in the otherwise promising pork carnavale ($26), three pork tenderloin cutlets pounded thin as wienerschnitzel, with a little (too little, actually) spinach tucked between them and a few shrimp plopped on top, all of it baked in ricotta and asiago cheese and the ubiquitous rosa sauce, served alongside penne in the same sauce. Each major component--pork, shrimp, spinach, pasta--could be differentiated by its texture, but not by its flavor.

The baked eggplant ($16) wallowed in the same sauce, plus mozzarella. The eggplant seemed a little tough, but it was not without virtue; there was no breading, which probably would have rendered the slices unidentifiable, and the dish was not overly oily, as baked Italian items can so often be. It wasn't really spicy, either, so it's a safe bet for people with digestive sensitivities. Similarly, the zucchini lasagna ($16) was tasty in a general way; the noodles were done just right, neither soggy nor stiff, and the zucchini made its presence felt. The dish came to the table hot but not so hot that the cheese and sauce would blister the roof of your mouth. Still, in a blind taste test, it might be hard to discern the lasagna from the baked eggplant.

The diners on the French side of our table told quite a different story. While Gavi Colaleo continues to preside over the Italian portion of the menu, the French dishes are masterminded by executive chef Richard Knott, and the two entrées of his we tried were exceptional.

The chicken Cordon Bleu ($24) was served in attractive slices rather than as an intact breast, so the layers were made visually evident: A crisp breading (again, not oily) surrounded the tender chicken, which had been stuffed with ham, and served with a brown glaze that almost called to mind teriyaki sauce. It was offered with a choice of sides, and the selected mashed potatoes were equally fine: buttery but not uniformly smooth, thanks to the inclusion of some of the skin, and carrying a garlic afterbite.

One of the evening's specials was lobster Thermidor ($32), the French special-occasion dish of cooked lobster meat mixed with cheese, egg and sherry or brandy, then stuffed back into the tail shell and accompanied by a rich sauce (in this case, a béchamel rather than the more traditional mustard sauce). Our dining companion described it as tender, juicy, creamy, mushroomy and large (at least a full pound), and appreciatively observed, "It's lazy-person food. You don't have to dig it out, and you don't even have to chew it."

Either by choice or default, depending on the entrée, we all started with the modest but agreeable house green salad. If you're in the mood for a slightly peppery dressing, choose either the creamy Italian or the balsamic vinaigrette.

We ended the evening with a sampling of desserts. Most appealing were the bombolini ($7)--fun, deep-fried balls of pastry filled with cannoli cream and served with a choice of ice cream--and the "ménage à deux" ($7), tiramisu topped with crème brlée. The chocolate mousse ($7), served in a crepe cup with crème anglaise and fresh berries, was also tasty.

La Taverna has a far more extensive menu than we were able to cover on a single visit, so you may find more variety and individuality among the Italian offerings than we did. Either way, the French dishes are definitely worth your attention.

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