Tavolo is restaurateur Chris Douglass latest ouevre. Conveniently located steps from the end of the Ashmont line, Douglass has positioned his latest venture literally and figuratively in the midst of change.
Last week I was invited to a media dinner and having stumbled on this location en route to another dinner months ago, I thought it was high time to come back for a visit. Change seems to be the theme for Douglass these days and who would be surprised if there were few mis-steps along the way. There is no growth without it. Douglass is just coming off the closing of Icarus one of the most successful restauarants in Boston's South End. Three decades ago he was one of the first fine dining restaurants in there. Anthony Spinazzola's 1981 review notes the surrounding squalor of the South End at the time that Icarus opened: "...an oasis amid the squalor, debris and broken glass of the unswept streets that surround it."
One of my dining companions was shocked at how this Dorchester neighborhood had changed since the old days when she lived there. With a Tire Center across the street and MBTA construction all around, this still has the feel of a neighborhood that has not yet arrived. In that context, the fact that the restaurant hasn't quite yet found its footing, can be forgiven. Certainly, Douglass is fearless when staking out a new location to feed. For that alone, he is to be commended. Icarus' flight in the South End was far more successful than its namesake's yet no less ambitious in its origins.
And, there's much to recommend Tavolo: easy access to public transportation, free parking, a light airy and casual atmosphere, bustling bar business that invites you to pull up a stool and watch the game. I was particularly looking forward to pasta since I'd seen many an email announcing the Pasta Tour- a great idea of "touring" Italy through her pastas. I'm a huge fan of discovering another place through its food.
Indeed, we were served gnocchi that were light as air, a good sign that the kitchen knows their pasta. Unfortunately, it was oversalted which is easy to do with both pancetta and pecorino romano in the sauce. Local fava beans were a sweet touch. Salt is an easy correction to make and given the saltiness of at least a couple of my dishes, is one that could use some attention here. "Max's Meatballs" were huge and light again showing deft hands but heavy on the salt.
Being the sustainable seafood maven that I am, I asked about the swordfish. I got the familiar "we have a great purveyor" answer when I asked where it was from and how it was caught. As readers of this blog know, I am not a fan of reliance on a purveyor's assurances that all is well and sustainable with their fish. (See The One that Got Away - about my seafood dinner at Via Matta.) The swordfish involtini was rendered well but could easily have been made with a sustainable selection. Duck breast over farro evoked the perfectly roasted duck that first impressed me at Icarus. I could have eaten that duck all night, but the farro (a favorite nutty chewy grain) was lost in a sauce that lacked the clarity and strength of the duck. Blueberry Genetti Cake was perfect. Not too sweet, it managed to hit just the right note to end the meal.
Maybe it's a quibble, but I would not lead with "we're still trying to get things right" message. I'd prefer a strong articulation of "what we are." It's okay to acknowledge some accommodation to local tastes (e.g. they're adding more entrees to the menu as they have at Ashmont Grill), but I came away with the sense that they are a restaurant in search of an identity. Then again, it's a neighborhood that is re-defining its own and maybe that's okay.
I saw none of the crayons I was warned to expect, but the cutest little boy with a Red Sox cap came toddling by with his Dad when I was being seated. It's clearly a family-friendly atmosphere. With the blue and white motif, I kept thinking what a perfect place this is to introduce ocean-friendly selections and showcase the wonderful pasta they are clearly turning out there. Maybe highlight regional Italian coastal cuisine and take a lead showcasing truly sustainable seafood? It has the feel of an upscale version of the Tavernas one finds on the Mediterranean. One of the things I love most about European and South American "taverns" like this is their multi-generational atmosphere which is often bustling, fun and relaxed all at the same time. We have too few of these sorts of establishments here in the states.
I would sign up for pasta classes, or come back for drinks at the bar over a Sox or Pats game. I'd love to try more of the pastas and pizza here, too. Let's hope the expansion of the Main Dishes portion of the menu replaces the two endangered fish (Cod and Halibut) with sustainable alternatives. Most entrees come in around $20 making dinner for two an affordable option.
Late night menu is available Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Some of the most interesting items are on the Antipasti and Appetizer menus: Sweet Pea soup with mascarpone and mint, for example. White anchovies, marinated olives, roasted peppers, prosciutto and other items come in at $3 each for a build your own Antipasto plate option. Some drinks, antipasti and split a pizza at the bar...sounds like a perfect date night.
If you drive rather than T it, there's plenty of free parking. Where else can you find that in Boston?
So the young Tavolo deserves your attention. Try it out and let me know what you find, maybe I'll see you at the bar!