A cool and classy, very Italian eatery opened in Portsmouth in October, and if it wasn’t a bit off the beaten path we would have been there pronto.
As it is, we arrived before the dead of summer set in, and we’re quite happy that we did.
Tavola is low-lit, comfortable and cozy, and it is unique: We can’t think of anywhere else where TV screens behind the bar and surrounding the dining area would be dominated by eight black-and-white screens showing old, old movies. There are only three color screens, with sporting events and such.
And, there is no sound coming from TVs, allowing classic music, such as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and other true oldies, to waft through Tavola’s dining spaces. During more than one moment on a recent weekend evening, Sinatra was singing over the sound system while he appeared in two different classic Westerns on the B&W screens.
In the music and decor, there is a definitive New York theme, and photos of other stars including Martin, Sophia Loren, more of Sinatra and others of the period grace subtly decorated walls and a Manhattan-skyline motifs.
The furniture is black and the lighting fixtures are mostly small and neon red, giving Tavola a suave and private dining style, despite tables spaced fairly close together.
The menu is full of good values, with low-priced pizzas and salads countering normally-priced dinners. Entrees run the gourmet gamut of Italian possibilities, from meatballs and antipasto to gnocchi, all manner of prosciutto dishes, eggplant, chicken, veal or steak, a pork porterhouse with caramelized pears, and any kind of seafood found on the East Coast.
We chose the Calamari Arrabbiati appetizer to share ($11), and were delighted with a buttery, garlic sauce over pretzel breaded sauteed calamari, with plenty of fresh sauteed tomatoes, basil, wine, lemon, more garlic and whole grain mustard. A great combination of taste, texture and spice, with a hearty helping of tasty calamari sections swimming in the sauce. Plenty for two to share, and a most enjoyable start.
We also ordered a caesar salad but, alas, it never arrived. We were, however, full into appetizers and the entrees had just arrived by the time we noticed no salad. We did not give it another thought, and it did not appear on the bill.
Our entrees consisted of a pasta/chicken dinner and a seafood creation that was out of this world.
Bella Luna ($16) featured large slices of sauteed chicken, red-pepper pesto, caramelized onions and portabella moon-shaped cheese and vegetable ravioli. Although a bit overpowered by the vodka-style sauce and cheese, the entree was robust and full of flavor, and the chicken was cooked nicely — sauteed just to the point of being cooked through but still allowing natural juices to remain.
We shared our two entrees, and the Secret Scampi ($22) was one of those dishes we only reluctantly passed back and forth. It is one of those meals that, after ordering it once, a patron might order again on every return visit, ignoring the rest of the menu.
But now, the secret is out, and there is no mystery to this dish — a large bowl of thin spaghetti with butter and garlic and white wine sauce simply loaded with hefty chunks of lobster, a not-so-small piece of swordfish steak, and plenty of succulent shrimp, laced with sauteed fresh spinach and sliced onions.
The scampi was truly an outstanding entree. The sauce was sinfully garlicky and buttery; the seafood was cooked carefully to preserve its color and all of its taste, and the sauce and seasoning were such that we were constantly tossing the pasta and veggies and seafood around in the best chance at getting all of it into each bite.
Tavola’s cocktail menu is also full with a lineup of classic and creative martinis, mixed drinks, and beers and wine. We did not get to the dessert menu, but we did take home two Baby Canolis ($2 each), a pair of four-bite-sized pieces of creamy goodness with little chunks of chocolate wrapped in a pastry shell.
Our experience at Tavola was an all-around good one. Our hostess was smilingly friendly; our waiter was comfortably competent, fun and not in a hurry, and everyone at other tables and at the bar seemed to be having an equally good time. It is a fun and interesting establishment, destined for a long run once word gets around that it is there to stay, tucked into a corner of the former Frank Jones Brewery malthouse in Portsmouth’s west end on Brewery Lane.
The malthouse is a large brick structure, now broken up into small businesses and a restaurant or two. Tavola is at one corner, but tough to spot if you are driving by. Use the directions on Tavola’s website, and then just look for the huge brick building. There is a huge, free parking lot in the back.
It is, indeed, home to “a vibrant dining experience...with a fusion of modern ambiance,” as its website succinctly points out.
We think you’ll agree.