When a restaurant makes the kind of big move that Tavolino recently accomplished, one wonders: "Why mess with a practically perfect situation? Why risk it all?"
Maybe it's like Edmund Hillary and that famous mountain: "Because it's there."
Tavolino in its original setting was tiny and intimate (tavolino means "small table"), and that was part of its charm. The new building—which previously housed VinTabla—is huge by comparison; the patio alone must seat more than the old site. And yet somehow, it all works.
The new space has high ceilings, and is open and curvy. Huge windows allow for plenty of light during the day. Chic lighting, a friendly bar area and that amazing patio add to the modern vibe. A semi-open kitchen adds another hip touch. Some of the cozy touches—such as large framed family photos that were an integral part of the old Tavolino—have been retained. The use of the space is a vast improvement from its VinTabla days; that restaurant was a bit stuffy in its modern elegance. (Another plus: There's a decent-sized, yet unobtrusive sign on the outside of the building, making Tavolino easier to find than VinTabla ever was.)
But a restaurant isn't all about décor or signs; it's about the food. And thankfully, although the vibe has changed considerably, the food hasn't: Chef Massimo Tenino and crew are still offering some of the best Italian food in town.
We began lunch simply with minestrone soup ($5) and a favorite, the Caprese salad ($7). The soup had all of the typical vegetables and a nice peppery kick; it could be a meal by itself with a slice or two of the focaccia bread that comes to the table warm (with olive oil for dipping).
The Caprese salad was art on a plate—and art to the palate. Bright-red tomato slices were served with fresh mozzarella, salty olives and a smattering of greens. Drizzled with a light olive-oil-based dressing, the dish was light and lovely.
We followed that with the pizza salsiccia ($10) and the panino vegetariano ($7). The pizza was the perfect size for one person. Homemade sausage melded perfectly with the tomato sauce, caramelized onions and mushrooms that had been cooked down to a savory goodness. (Pizza is only found on the lunch menu.)
The panino held a nice mix of grilled veggies: savory eggplant, portobello mushrooms and silky, sweet red peppers—all topped with a slice or two of provolone and a bit of a light herb salsa verde. Served on focaccia, the combo was so Italian and so fresh.
We finished off lunch with the house bonet ($7), which has to be one of the best chocolate desserts on the planet; it was a perfect ending. It's not quite mousse, and not quite custard, but the chocolate seems to go on and on.
The dinner menu is small—shades of the old Tavolino—but well-balanced. We opted for the polipo alla griglia (grilled octopus, $12.75) and the panzanella salad ($10.75) to start.
The octopus—bits and tentacles—had a great char. It was a perfect appetizer portion, but I could've eaten more. The salad, like the Caprese at lunch, was artfully presented. Here, the tomatoes were chopped and then tossed atop toasted mini-rounds of bread, some greens and a light dressing.
For entrées, we ordered the tagliatelle alla Bolognese ($16.75), and I couldn't pass up the evening's special, pappardelle with lamb ragu ($19.75).
Both pastas included meat-based red sauces, but those sauces differed in several ways, as did the pastas. The Bolognese consisted of nice ribbons of pasta dressed in a rich meaty sauce; it was the definition of this classic dish. Any leftover sauce was sopped up with the focaccia.
The pappardelle with lamb was truly a treat. The savory sauce—a little darker in color than the Bolognese—was also deeper in flavor. The pasta was so thin and tender that it practically melted in the mouth.
We finished with the tiramisu ($7). This is what this dish is supposed to be: layers of flavors and textures, not too sweet and very grown-up.
Service on both visits was smooth and knowledgeable, with lots of smiles; servers were there when you needed them, without hovering. The staff seemed genuinely happy to be working there.
I confess that I was concerned when I heard about Tavolino's big move. Just the fact that they'd be putting out so many more plates every evening made me wonder if it was possible for them to maintain the quality I loved about this place. But now, I am relieved: Tavolino continues to be one of Tucson's best Italian restaurants.