Across the city of Charlottesville, restaurants are constantly pushing for innovation. Phrases like “a modern twist” or “a brand new take on…” can be seen all too often at many top restaurants, written in sleek fonts on menus or displayed in slender type online. While enjoying the cutting edge of the city’s inventive cuisine is always a pleasure, there’s nothing quite like returning to a classic, made-from-scratch restaurant. And when it comes to Italian eating in particular, it’s difficult to think of a restaurant more deserving of the title of a ‘classic’ than Tavola. Located near the heart of Belmont, Tavola is co-owned by Michael and Tami Keaveny, a married couple that started the rustic Italian restaurant in 2009. From concept to final product, the restaurant grew from the minds of the Keaveny’s, which makes the welcoming atmosphere less than surprising. From opening the door and stepping into the mellow ivory interior, you’re hit with the sights and sounds of an Italian osteria. Cooks talking across the open-atmosphere kitchen are backed by the tune of sizzling meat on hot pans. A deep red back wall and dim lighting makes the room feel cozy. Chef’s knives and a rustic wooden wine rack don the walls, and low ceilings and a small dining room make for a room filled with laughter and enthusiastic conversation, especially if you’ve been taking a look at the extensive Italian wine selection. The restaurant is filled with an energy that makes staff and diners smile. And their smiles only grow once plates of food start arriving. Like the decor, Tavola stays true to its classic Italian theme in its cooking. Menu entries are written exclusively in Italian, making a quick Google search of those harder to pronounce dishes your friend, but the promise of great Italian food goes beyond the language of choice. Fresh Italian cheeses, house-made pastas and sausages and rich tomato broths can all be seen on Tavola’s menu. Enjoy creamy burrata cheese or tangy beef carpaccio to start, and follow it up with peppery and perfectly al-dente carbonara or a hearty, bubbling eggplant parmesan. Eating at Tavola is all about the ingredients — the bottom corner of the menu is filled by a long list of local farms, markets and bakeries that provide fresh ingredients to the Tavola kitchen. Tavola prides itself in the fresh and from-scratch cooking style, and their excellent food sourcing provides them a culinary edge over the competition. Because of the high quality of ingredients, dishes at Tavola are allowed to be simple. The burrata plate I ate clean contained only cheese, toasted bread, sun-dried tomatoes and pesto, but it is far and away my personal recommendation — if you’re lucky enough to find it on the specials menu. You can taste the difference in fresh cheese from local cows and bread that was more than likely baked that morning. That straightforward plate is elevated by the quality of ingredients into something memorable, a story that could be told about dishes across the menu at Tavola. Tavola has also upped the ante with talent among its staff. The restaurant made changes this summer by bringing on Dylan Allwood, a former chef at local powerhouse and past feature C&O, as their new head chef. Allwood’s history at a more eclectic and French restaurant may cause issues down the line, but in September at least the food coming from his kitchen was stunning. But the caliber of food at Tavola is not based purely on ingredients or an experienced new head chef; it comes from the staff as a whole. By listening to the constant communication between cooks, one can easily understand why the food comes out so tasty. The staff at Tavola has bought into the vision of a classic Italian eatery, and they put their best work into the food that comes out steaming from that kitchen. Wait staff are friendly and sociable, always willing to help a less-than-Mediterranean American like me learn about their offerings, as well as make a few personal suggestions. Smiling faces from behind the bar and in the kitchen and a wait crew willing to join in conversation makes the whole experience at Tavola feel like being over at a real Italian’s house for dinner. Tavola may not wow you with innovative culinary combinations or new dining experiences you’ve never had before, but it serves Italian food the way it should be served: simple, hearty and unequivocally delicious. The atmosphere makes upscale dining casual and accessible, and I’d take visiting relatives inside just as soon as my college friends. Classic restaurants can be hard to come by in a city as rich in food as Charlottesville, but Tavola manages to serve up classic Italian dishes that still stand out among the crowd. I’ll be back soon, Tavola, and know you’ll be just as excited to see me as I am to see you.