TUCSON RESTAURANT REVIEW

Tavolino loses bit of flavor

Move to new, large space removes earlier intimacy; food fades, too
2010-06-17T00:00:00Z 2010-06-17T00:07:02Z Tavolino loses bit of flavorKathleen Allen Kallen@azstarnet.com Arizona Daily Star
June 17, 2010 12:00 am  • 

Here's what we loved about Tavolino Ristorante Italiano when it was at its small space on West Ina and North Oracle roads:

• The lasagna was quite possibly the best in town.

• While there were sometimes mistakes, most dishes were delectable.

• The restaurant had a cozy, neighborhood feel, as though everyone knew everyone else. And Massimo Tenino, the owner and chef, seemed to be cooking for family friends.

• It was intimate, with just 12 tables in the main dining room and pictures of Tenino's family crowding the walls. Even when the restaurant took over the space next door, it never lost that intimate ambience.

Here's what we love about Tavolino in its new digs, the former home of VinTabla at 2890 E. Skyline Drive, which closed last summer.

• The lasagna is quite possibly the best in town.

That's it.

Of course, that's no small thing. Tavolino's Lasagna al Forno ($15.75) isn't stuffed with cheese. No, the rich meat sauce, made with a mixture of beef, veal and pork, is the star of the dish. The wide noodles are made there, and it was topped with mozzarella and fresh Parmesan. Each bite is an uncovering of textures and flavors.

You still can enjoy that lasagna, but the ambience is seriously altered.

The restaurant is now a mansion compared with the old space, and there are booths, tables and a wonderful outdoor patio. But it is big - very big (it seats about 190) - and is robbed of intimacy. While family pictures still dot the walls, they don't begin to convey that "you're at home" feel of the old space.

And due to the new, beautiful wood floor, it's loud. Very loud. Conversation was a struggle.

But perhaps the biggest disappointment was the food.

It was rare that a misstep happened at the original location - the food was so good that reservations were near impossible to get. But after two visits, we were a tad stunned at the mediocrity of the offerings.

The Insalata Tavolino ($6.75) cracked with the freshness of the mixed greens, but the garlic croutons tasted stale and not too garlicky. The white wine vinaigrette added a nice puckerness, but the promised Parmesan cheese was barely there. It turned out to be a pretty humdrum salad for a not-so-humdrum price.

One night's special, an orecchiette ($18.75) came with a hefty helping of sublime made-there pork sausage spiked with fennel and a bit of black pepper. It would have been a delectable dish if the small-bowl-like pasta had not been undercooked (we're not talking al dente here; we're talking barely cooked enough to chew) - and if the garlic-cream sauce that the waiter said came with it had not been a bland garlic butter sauce. Now we love garlic butter, but it's not what was advertised or expected.

There was another disappointment with the Trota in Padella ($24.75), rainbow trout with a side of fresh spinach and sweet oven-roasted tomatoes. The trout, pan-roasted to give a crispy coat, had no flavor. Really. Trout is generally delicate and mild, but it definitely has a taste - though farm-raised fish, as these were, are not as flavorful as wild.

The Tagliata di Manzo ($24.75) is a simple dish made with steak - in Tavolino's case, it's the slightly tough but flavorful flank steak - that's seared, sliced and served with the nutty, green arugula. Tavolino sprinkled a stingy amount of gorgonzola on top, drizzled it with a fruity olive oil kicked up with rosemary, and fresh lemon on the side.

The mixture of flavors seduced us, and the lemon juice squirted over the steak took us right back to a restaurant in Florence, Italy, where we were first introduced to the lemon-on-steak concept. This was one of the better dishes we tried, but it still didn't soar up to the top of our "must-have" list the way the lasagna does.

A special dessert on one visit was the fluffy bread pudding ($7), whipped together with Tavolino's focaccia, dotted with raisins and topped with a wonderfully gooey caramel sauce and a scoop of made-there vanilla gelato.

The dessert was OK. Not terrific or exciting. Just OK.

And that's the biggest disappointment of all - in the past, Tavolino's used to be so much more than OK.

Review

• What: Tavolino Ristorante Italiano.

• Where: 2890 E. Skyline Drive, 531-1913.

• Hours: Lunch - 11 a.m.-3 p.m., Mondays through Saturdays; dinner - 5-10 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, and 5-11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

• Family call: It seems to be more of a grown-up place in this location. Though there is no kids' menu, the chefs will whip together something special for the young 'uns.

• Noise level: Conversations are a struggle.

• Vegetarian choices: Several.

• Dress: Casual.

• Reservations: Accepted.

• Prices: Entrees range from $15.75 to $28.75.

• Wine list: Italian wines, most reasonably priced, though look carefully - on a few wines, it might be a better value to buy by the glass than by the bottle.

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