Little Spot With a Big Heart

Tavolino is a cozy, elegant place--one that's so small, reservations are a must

Tavolino loosely translated from the Italian means "small table." And indeed, Tavolino is a small space filled with small, elegantly topped tables. But there is nothing small about what goes on at this northwest-side restaurant. Here, you'll find smart, friendly service, a convivial atmosphere and wonderful Italian food.

We met our good friends Libby and Don Mack at Tavolino on a busy Friday night. The tiny place was packed--there are about 12 tables in the entire place--and in spite of our 7 p.m. reservations, we had to wait outside for a table. The friendly hostess assured us it wouldn't be a long wait, and it really wasn't.

We were seated at one of the lovely little tables. Inches away were other tables all filled with people enjoying lively conversations. Yet the noise wasn't distracting; it only added to the experience.

The room is elegantly dressed: white walls with an eclectic mix of artwork, modern track lighting and a glass wall. A tiny bar, where one might enjoy an after-dinner glass of wine, stands against one wall. All well thought out; all done well.

Our server arrived moments later, asking if we wanted water, and if so, what kind: The menu has both still and sparkling mineral water. We opted out and ordered a bottle of chianti ($35). The wine list is a lot like Tavolino itself: small, but surprisingly diverse. When asked what a specific wine was, the server without hesitation compared it to a cabernet. She was also extremely knowledgeable about the menu. The staff cares, and that caring only makes the dining experience better.

There is also Italian beer and limited liquor.

We started the meal with that evening's appetizer (antipasto) special--a plate of proscuitto and fresh mozzarella ($11.75). It's perhaps a bit steep for a starter, but when it was served, we decided it was well worth it. There was plenty of the paper-thin proscuitto, and the cheese was so fresh it practically melted in the mouth. A drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of tomato made the dish both tasty and pretty. The bread--replenished as we ate it--was a wonderful ciabatta. I could've made a meal of that and the appetizer.

Libby ordered the insalata Tavolino ($4.75). The good-sized salad was served with garlic croutons, Parmesan and the house vinaigrette. Lib said it was very fresh--a word that fit everything we had that night.

Don, John and I all ordered pasta dishes. Libby was the hold out and went with the pollo marinato alla griglia ($14.75).

All the pastas we ordered were homemade. Wonderfully fresh and tender, it's the kind of pasta one dreams about. The sauces were different from one another and all quite fantastic.

John's ravioli ($11.75)--there must have been a dozen on the plate--were filled with a sweet spot of butternut squash. The light brown butter sauce, kissed with a bit of sage and a sprinkle of parmesan, was a perfect complement for the slightly sweet filling. John, a lover of a good meat ravioli in red sauce, thought these pasta pillows were fabulous. Everyone at the table agreed.

Don's lasagna al forno ($11.75) was also superb. The tender sheets of pasta were layered with fluffy cheeses and a meat ragu: again, a wonderful balance of ingredients. The sauce didn't drown out the other ingredients, as some times happens with lasagna. There was a taste of everything in each bite. Lasagna lovers would be wise to try Tavolino's version of this traditional Italian restaurant dish. They will not be disappointed.

My oxtail ragu was served on fresh papardelle ($13.75). The savory meat had been slow-cooked in its own juices and maybe a touch of cream. It was then perfectly paired with the wide strips of fresh pasta. The sauce clung to the pasta like the two had been created for each other. The dish was one of the specials that night; I only hope it's a special on my next visit.

Libby's chicken was most amazing. The breast had been marinated in lime juice and rosemary and then grilled. The chef knows how to handle a griglia. The marinade was cooked into the chicken with the char sealing in the wonderful flavors. The meat itself remained moist and juicy. The veggies on the side were also perfectly grilled, especially the tiny, red potatoes. Totally amazing.

The talk at the table was about the great food, but then came the desserts. We went with kind of an ebony and ivory thing and ordered the crème caramel, a vanilla custard with caramel sauce ($5) and the Bonet, a chocolate custard with caramel sauce ($5). Even though both desserts were custards topped with caramel sauce, they were incredibly different. The vanilla custard had a liberal topping of the wonderful sauce and was light and eggy. The chocolate custard, on the other hand, had been whipped into a thick froth. Here again, both texture and taste combined to make this, as Libby put it, "the best chocolate dessert I've ever had." The drizzle of caramel sauce was almost unnecessary, but oh so good.

Tavolino may be tiny, but that's all part of the charm of the place: a cozy, elegant room with cozy, elegant service and cozy, elegant food. All add up to a memorable evening.

It's easy to understand its popularity. With the limited amount of tables and the number of regular customers, it is essential that you call ahead for reservations. I called on a Tuesday and was lucky to get a table at 7 that Friday. Perhaps during the week, it might be a little easier to sneak in, but the noise on the other end of the phone indicated the place was packed even then.

Give Tavolino a try. We're going back--and soon.

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