Tavolino Ristorante Italiano

We award Tavolino a rare 4.75 out of 5. This is an excellent Italian Restaurant

Or A+

Last minute I asked, “Hey, where we goin’?”  Tavolino Ristorante Italiano was the answer. So, in the middle of what has been some pretty busy family time, we made more time to celebrate my mother in law’s birthday.  From a pretty spectacular glass of house Merlot to the waitresses’ knowledge of the Pinot Grigio and a truly spectacular eggplant parmesan, the entire meal and experience was pretty much a home run.

I had no idea! And by that I mean I had no idea this place existed. As a food person in Tucson it would appear after three years I still have much to learn about the food scene. As legend would have it Tavolino started off as a quaint hole in the wall with about four tables and went through a previous expansion at another location.  They recently ended up in its current location which is spacious and represents what we here in the Ole Pueblo call “Tucson Casual.” Flip flops and shorts money spends just like a $500 dollar suit does, and we saw both in attendance.  The space feels open and modern with a large bar that opens to the outside, lots of glass, and yet somehow it avoids being loud or cavernous. And here is the good news, it appears that not only has every attention to detail benefited the look and feel of the restaurant, they’ve also focused that same attention to an understated and elegant menu and spectacular presentation of their food. Pride in what they are doing does not begin to describe what they communicated. And they let their food do most of the communicating!

My wife’s eggplant parmesan was perfectly executed. It was the best single bite of eggplant I have ever had in my life. One of my first serious jobs as a chef was in a gourmet catering company which was owned and operated by a bunch of crazy New Jersey Italians that operated in Denver. The head chef had a gambling problem and when she was losing, which was most of the time, she was a bit of butthead to work for but like so many talented lost souls, she was an incredible chef. She taught me how to make a few authentic Italian dishes, whatever that means, and what I learned was that you can create Italian food that is somehow substantial and light at the same time.  I learned that fresh dried herbs are often better than fresh herbs when concocting sauces/gravies. We used to mark every container of dried herbs and at the six month mark we were instructed to toss them out and order new.   But balancing sweet with just the right amount of tart using the essential Italian ingredients is still a challenge for me, even with good cheese and decent olive oil.  Most Italian places replace the art of cooking for the over-use of fat and an overwhelming use of dried herbs.  Not Tavolino.

And so the Eggplant Parmesan was creamy with a perfect blend and balances of cheese to gravy (red sauce) and was also crispy.  Light and substantial at the same time, it was a work of art and a testimony to talent of the owner, the chef and cooks.  And it made my wife smile and me envious.

Let’s jump back for a moment to the appetizers. A rustic tomato soup made with a “touch of cream” was brought to the table. I tried one spoonful, and then another, and then contemplated that perhaps I made the wrong choice when I ordered Bruschetta al Pomodoro with  prosciutto and what I suspect was fresh homemade mozzarella. The soup was sweet and hearty.  Each bite was an invitation to enjoy yet another.  I had to contain myself. The soups at the table were not mine.
I was happily not disappointed.  After saying yes to the obligatory twist of fresh cracked pepper, I took at a bite of my beautifully presented Bruschetta.

Bruschetta al Pomodoro

Bruschetta al Pomodoro

Just like the soup, it was fresh, hearty, and literally melted in our mouths. I want to note that not one time during this entire meal did I think, “I need a little squeeze of lemon or a touch bit more salt.” The seasoning was perfect! I get to say that, well, just about never.

And then our entrée’s arrived. I had braised wood fired tenderloin of pork. A special bread salad created for that evening featured a light olive oil dressing tossed over mixed greens and homemade crusty croutons and goat cheese. It was incredible and I don’t have the words to do it justice. We also tried the house fish special for the evening.  If they fell short at all, it was that the fish itself had little favor.

If you can’t tell, I was truly humbled by the meal, the wine and the service was just about perfect. My thanks to Courtney, the chefs, and to the entire wait staff who did a superb job, even when we rushed them so my mother-in-law could make her mah jongg game.

We got out of there having ordered appetizers, a couple of rounds of wine, and all our entrees for $150.00 plus tip. For four people, even though I know times are tight, I consider it one of the best meals I’ve had in Tucson for the price. If you love your mama, take her there; if you love your wife, take here there.  If you have screwed up and need to get out of the dog house, I suggest you start with Tavolino.  I promise you’ll have at least a slightly better chance of righting whatever wrongs you have committed.

I want to leave you inspired and moved to go try this place.  Incredibly sophisticated and at the same time understated and true to their mission. They served us a beautiful meal, in a gorgeous environment, and delivered spectacular service.
I hear the place is packed and not really a best kept secret. I highly recommend that you make a reservation. We hit them up early in the week and it was busy by 6pm.

They earn an unequivocal 4.75 out of 5 and set a new standard for Tucson fine dining.
Because my freakin’ I phone camera sucks, the pictures are off of their website which are truly representative of our meals.

All you need to know is at


Tavolino on Urbanspoon

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