You could stumble upon this four-month-old restaurant, as I did, if it were lunchtime, you were hungry and you had business at the Bulk Barn on Merivale Road. Otherwise, you may never lay eyes on the place.
Tavola is in the furthest, quietest corner of what is known as the Merivale Market Mall, quite hidden behind a whopping Shoppers Drug Mart and beside this Bulk Barn. (The Market Mall is on the south side of the section of Merivale that runs diagonally between Clyde and Baseline; look for the Shoppers, then venture behind it.)
To say that Tavola is ‘tucked away’ puts a romantic spin on what is this restaurant’s biggest problem.
I would say that Tavola, which is owned by chef Ferdi Ozkul (formerly of Cyranos, Paesano’s and Zola’s), has a few other problems, but only a very few, and all of them pretty repairable.
It needs to season the cooking water before dropping in its fresh pasta, and it could be a bit more generous with some dishes and a bit less with others. But once the salt has been located and the portions jimmied, I would say this tricky-to-find restaurant is a find. Tavola has tasty food, a sensible menu, keen service, and a clever, mall-busting design.
An open kitchen draws the eye in to the room and away from the parking lot. The colours – shades of green with bolts of sangria red – are striking, and the lighting is soft and flattering. The servers – who don’t seem to see many patrons – are delighted you’ve arrived and make you feel quite fussed over.
If you want diversion while you consider the menu, order the antipasti for two (or make a meal of it yourself). You will get a simple, clean plate of good things: Italian prosciutto, wedges of parmigiano, marinated olives, a warm grilled vegetable salad, a zippy white bean dip drizzled with olive oil and topped with a chiffonade of basil and big, fat delicious shrimp. The good house bread arrives with it, toasted, and there are bottles of infused olive oil on the table if you want to moisten or liven things.
The house Caesar has a solid dressing (lemon, anchovies, garlic) and good crunch (more of the heart of the Romaine is used, and less of the green leaf, as it should be). A sweet potato and squash soup has Italian-mamma rustic charm, the sweetness of the potato nicely balanced with the all-savoury squash.
Onwards to pasta, where there are tasty choices. Order the lasagna and you receive a generous wedge of spinach pasta, thin sheets, layered with a nubbly Bolognese, a creamy bÃ©chamel and enough fresh basil to give the moist wedge great flavour. Fettucine noodles need salt, yes they do, but they are firm, slick with basil oil and tossed with roasted red pepper, toasted pine nuts and more of those fine shrimp.
A salad of meaty fava beans, with arugula, mushrooms and lengths of grilled Italian sausage is treated with a warm mustard vinaigrette. It and the bowl of orange soup made a happy lunch.
Of the secondi I like the stuffed chicken (and I never like the stuffed chicken). Tavola has cheated a bit, and the results are much better. The breast meat has been halved, each piece pounded, seasoned and grilled to juicy, sandwiched with basil and goat cheese then roasted until the cheese is mostly melted and the herbs wilted. The old favourites are done well – veal marsala and parmigiana – and these come with a collection of crisp vegetables – asparagus, carrots, haricots verts.
At my very first visit here there was roasted salt cod on offer. By the time I returned, a few weeks later, it had been replaced with salmon.
I asked about it. No one ordered it, the server told me. “We had to keep throwing it out. People expect salmon.” Surely we can change this. if enough of us ask for it, Ozkul might put it back on the menu.
You could say apple crisp is hardly Italian and you’d be right, but who cares. Put a scoop of gelato on top (from Pure Gelato on Bank Street) and don’t argue with me. This is the apple crisp your mother made for Thanksgiving and it’s good stuff. More-Italian desserts include a first-class lemon cake, and gelato – mixed berry, chocolate – delicious.
As for portions. Order the linguine with clams and you’ll be wishing for one more tong-full of pasta. Order the apple crisp and you could pass it around the restaurant. It would still come back to you for a few final bites. Which you want.
To wash down the tasty food, there is a pretty predictable wine list, more international than strictly Italian, but it’s a good length and bottles are fairly priced.