My first date with Tavolata was late on a Saturday night. We were just checking each other out — avoiding commitment, you might say...
My first date with Tavolata was late on a Saturday night. We were just checking each other out — avoiding commitment, you might say. I sat at the bar sipping wine and nibbling salty pillows of fried polenta (an Italian take on tater tots), paired with an equally salty bagna cauda, an emulsion of anchovy, garlic and olive oil.
Next to me a couple shared a bowl of fettuccine and a salad, she daintily dishing up both with tongs. On my other side a guy pecked at his gnocchi, his eyes fixated on his cellphone.
More convivial was the crowd crammed at the 30-foot-long communal table. That slab of Vashon Island fir dominates the deep, dark, narrow dining room, flanked by booths-for-two on one wall and banquette seating on the other. A quartet of cooks works the kitchen, visible at the far end; high above it looms a mezzanine.
Downstairs there’s quite a din, and the room is a tad grungy. Thrift-shop mirrors hang on cement walls that appear to be (no doubt intentionally) crumbling; tables are bare, and those bench seats look hard. Tavolata’s ad hoc vibe could not be more different from its polished older sister, Union. (Isn’t that always the way with siblings?)
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Chef Ethan Stowell is proprietor of both; his partner here is Patric Gabre-Kidan, once head pastry chef at Dahlia Bakery, now Tavolata’s unflappable front-of-the-house presence.
Though Tavolata’s gritty, urban edge was initially disconcerting, I ended up smitten with the place, because in the end, the way to any restaurant critic’s heart is through the stomach. The rustic Italian fare prepared here, under chefs Matt Fortner and Ryan Weed, is honest and true.
“Have you ever eaten brains?” my friend inquired, looking up from Tavolata’s brief menu, tweaked daily to reflect what’s fresh and available from the markets and purveyors.
2323 Second Ave.,
Accepted for parties of six or more.
Hours: 5 p.m.- 1 a.m. daily.
Prices: First course $9-$14; second course $13-$15; third course $28-$45 (all served family-style).
Drinks: Cocktails and a brief, select list of Italian wines.
Parking: On street.
Sound: Very loud.
Who should go: Urbanites seeking fresh, simple Italian fare — especially those who grew up in a big, boisterous family and have mastered the boarding-house reach.
Credit cards: All major cards.
Access: No obstacles.
My Sicilian grandmother used to cook brains. I remember them as soft and bland, rather like white scrambled eggs. At Tavolata, veal brains mixed with ricotta and lemon zest become a filling for agnolotti, toothsome raviolilike dumplings nestled with sage leaves under a blanket of brown butter lightly dusted with cheese.
The agnolotti, like all the pastas, are house-made. All are very good, from long, lithe spaghetti and fettuccine to hand-cut gnocchi to extruded shapes like rigatoni. Those stubby, ridged macaroni are well-matched to a lusty tomato sauce, chunky with mildly spicy pork sausage and bright with fresh marjoram. Torchio, a noodle curled like the base of a torch, ensnares a thick, meaty tomato sauce enriched with short ribs. Both wear a virtual Mont Blanc of grated cheese.
Not every pasta dish comes together so successfully. Crispy nuggets of fried ricotta gnocchi with briny black olives and florets of cauliflower need more of a sauce than olive oil to make it coalesce. And when diced bacon turns up in fettuccine carbonara one night, instead of the promised pancetta, it gives this peppery dish a smoky, ham-and-eggy taste that soon gets tiresome.
Pastas, and everything else, are served family-style, in keeping with the communal theme. That doesn’t mean you can’t graze solo on the luscious, lemony octopus and cannellini bean salad or affetato — paper-thin slices of salami, sopressata and prosciutto accompanied by olives, as well as fig and apricot mostarda, a sweet and sharp chutneylike condiment.
But if you come with a group, you won’t have to choose between the pudding-soft braised veal cheeks mounted on crostini spread with chickpea purée or veal carpaccio, the raw, bubble-gum pink flesh anointed with olive oil, chopped parsley, Parmigiano-Reggiano and white anchovies. You can have them both!
You’ll need a group to tackle the 2-pound T-bone or the voluptuous pork chop. The grilled steak comes with caramelized cippolini onions and lemon-dressed arugula greens. A cut into the crusty, salt-and-peppered exterior reveals tender, brick-red meat with enormous flavor that rivals its steakhouse competition. The chop, juicy in parts, dry in others, is notable more for its accompaniments — spring onions and fiddlehead ferns sautéed with pancetta.
Sitting at the central table as bowls and platters are passed recalls the family parties of my youth, except here there’s a waitstaff, most of whom carry out their duties with aplomb: pacing the flow of food; replenishing the fabulous Dahlia Bakery ciabatta; and amplifying the short, select Italian wine list, which is as reasonably priced as the menu.
Like the veal brains, dessert took me back to my grandmother’s kitchen. It wasn’t the intensely fruity grapefruit sorbet, nor the exquisite thumb-size cannoli, filled to order with lush ricotta cream studded with pistachio and candied fruit. No, this time it was the zeppole — what we would call “spingi.” We kids got to roll those bite-size balls of fried dough in sugar as they were plucked from the frying pan. Tavolata gives them a squirt of lemon and a dusting of powdered sugar and delivers them to you hot and airy — and they are just as good as Grandma’s.
No, it wasn’t love at first sight. But the more time I spent at the table, the more I appreciated Tavolata’s rough charm. In the early evening or very late — when the crowd thins, when your eyes adjust to the dimness, when it’s no longer necessary to lip read to keep conversation going — it feels almost mellow. Like a relationship that could really get serious.
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Octopus salad $11
Braised veal cheeks $14
Rigatoni with sausage $14
Grilled T-bone $45