Taste of Italy: Americanized standards replaced by authenticity at Tavolino

By Valerie Vinyard

Tavolino Ristorante Italiano is no stranger to summer’s sparse crowds and searing temperatures.

The classy restaurant has been feeding locals and visitors delicious Italian food and artisan pizzas since 2003. Like many restaurants during Arizona’s summer, Tavolino plates up a few specials to entice diners.

“It’s basically the time to celebrate Tucson,” says Tavolino’s general manager Justin Fernandez. “(Tucsonans) know they have the freedom to enjoy the fruits of everyone’s labor.”

Tavolino’s happy hour, from 3 to 6 p.m. Tuesdays to Sundays in the summer, is always a fantastic deal year-round, and wine drinkers can continue to enjoy wines for half-price by the bottle until 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

Karla Rodriguez, Tavolino’s assistant manager, says the weekend wine deal is a great opportunity for wine drinkers to take advantage of the restaurant’s well-chosen list.

“If you ever really wanted to do that nice bottle of wine, now is the time to try it,” she says, noting the restaurant’s regular wine list bottle prices range from $36 to $140.

Perhaps the best summer deal is the $55 or $75 wine and dinner pairing for two from 3 p.m. to close on Sundays. Diners will receive three courses—one salad, one entrée and one dessert each—as well as a bottle of wine.

There’s also a ganga lunch or dinner special on Tuesdays, where diners choose a pizza to share, and each diner gets a salad, glass of wine and a dessert—all for $30.

To keep the savings going throughout the year, diners can take advantage of Tavolino’s Christmas in July special, where purchasing a $100 gift card yields a bonus $20 gift card all month.

On the third Thursday of each month through October, diners can taste their way through one of five wine regions of Italy. At $35 per person, tastings will include sampling of two whites, two reds, and one premium red wine, each paired with small food bites. The next tour is July 18 and will feature dishes from The Islands. Reservations are required.

On August 15, Central Italy will be featured; September 19 will be Northeast Italy; and October 17 will be Northwest Italy.

Newcomers who peruse Tavolino’s menu might notice Americanized Italian standbys are missing such as a Caesar salad or spaghetti and meatballs. Even Tavolino’s lasagna ($19), a customer favorite, doesn’t include the ricotta that’s added to many Americanized lasagna recipes.

That’s because the restaurant features dishes from Northern Italy, which still include house-made pastas but give particular attention to risottos and polentas. Rich cream-based sauces star also in many of the region’s dishes, although Tavolino’s tagliatelle with a meaty Bolognese ($17) is one of the more substantial offerings.

And once you check out the variety of options, meatballs will be the furthest thing on your mind.

Take the Ossobuco D’Agnello con Risotto ($35). The generously portioned braised lamb shank falls off the bone and is piled high with a chunky, zesty tomato-based sauce. A wild mushroom risotto adds a creamy, woody flavor to the dish.

Other standards are featured, such as gelatos and sorbettos. And most of the pasta is created in house, making for an amazingly fresh meal.

The owner and executive chef, Massimo Tenino, grew up in San Remo, a coastal town located in Northwest Italy. Tenino’s grandmother inspired his passion for food and fresh, simple ingredients. Tenino now owns three restaurants in Arizona and California.

Donald Davis, a sales representative for STEM Wine Company, cites the Bistecca Tagliata ($20) as a favorite because “it’s the perfect size for me.”

“I love the location and the people,” says Davis of Tavolino. “And I love the patio at night.”

Tavolino Ristorante Italiano

2890 E. Skyline Drive

531-1913, tavolinoristorante.com

Hours : 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Happy hour is from 3 to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays.