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Italian flavors bloom at Tavola

An exquisite dining experience worth the elevated price

<p>Though Tavola’s prices put the restaurant out of reach for casual dining, it's an ideal spot for a celebratory occasion or a dinner with visiting parents.</p>

Though Tavola’s prices put the restaurant out of reach for casual dining, it's an ideal spot for a celebratory occasion or a dinner with visiting parents.

Tucked away in Charlottesville’s Belmont neighborhood lies a quaint Italian haven. Tavola marries the bucolic charm and timeless elegance of Italy’s countryside with a blend of innovative culinary twists. I was lucky enough to venture there with a friend, and I still find myself daydreaming about the uniquely modern Italian dining experience. Although Tavola lies at the pricier end of the spectrum, it is worth a visit — the chefs merge classic Italian artistry with modern creativity in a way that keeps visitors eagerly anticipating their return. 

Only a 10-minute drive from central Grounds, Tavola is located on Hinton Avenue and open from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Dinner guests can make reservations online through Resy. In addition to a classic, sit-down dinner experience, Tavola offers a variety of private dining and event options, involving menus personally curated by their head chefs, Kendall Moore and Alicia Simmons. 

Upon entering Tavola, my friend and I were greeted by the warmth of friendly staff and enveloped by the inviting aromas of fresh bread, simmering sauces and aged parmesan. Inside, the warm, wooden interior blended rustic charm with a dash of old-world elegance, inviting us into a venue that felt ageless, refined and comfortable. I was particularly struck by their artful use of soothing, dim lighting throughout the restaurant to elevate the room’s atmosphere.

Once we had soaked in the charming ambiance, we savored an unforgettable three-course meal, beginning with a series of delectable appetizers. We began with the “trio di bruschetta” — a plate of three delightfully crispy baguette slices, each with a different, mouthwatering topping. While I have often found bruschetta rather tough or arduous to bite through, my teeth seamlessly sunk into these masterfully baked creations. What really made them sing, however, were the variety of spreads they came with.

The first of the trio was slathered with a light and creamy lemon aioli and garnished with three briny sardines. The resulting flavor combination was refreshing and perfectly piquant. The second bruschetta was topped with a goat cheese aioli and a cranberry and golden raisin compote — an artful balance of sweet and savory. The last of the three was a textural delight, coated with a thick honey aioli and sprinkled with crispy pieces of pancetta and baked acorn squash. 

Though I would recommend an order of this dish, I would note that this assortment of spreads will likely be different in the future. The bruschetta trio is one of numerous dishes at Tavola that changes seasonally — and sometimes even daily — to utilize ingredients at their freshest. 

The second appetizer we tasted was extraordinary. We decided on a whim to order the whipped lemon ricotta tartlet “antipasti speciale.” The pastry enveloping this tart was beautiful — golden, buttery and melting into my taste buds with each bite. The house-made lemon ricotta filling was light, subtle and airy. Its flavor harmonized beautifully with sautéed hedgehog mushrooms and lightly dressed Manakintowne greens that rested on top. The simplicity of this dish masked its complexity, as only a few components produced an incredibly robust flavor profile.

Our entrées only continued to dazzle us. We ordered the bolognese pasta, which included thick, house-made pappardelle noodles coated in a rich beef and pork ragú. The morsels of meat were tender and decadent, falling apart on the tines of my fork and delivering a comforting, salty flavor with each bite. The dish was topped with slivers of fresh basil and grated grana padano cheese, which added a bit of freshness and elevated the pasta’s textural landscape. 

We also ordered the orecchiette “paste special,” which was arguably the star of the evening. The house-made pasta was perfectly al dente, lathered in a remarkable braised lamb sauce. Tavola receives their lamb from nearby Meadow’s Pride Farm and braises it for hours in a lamb jus, ensuring a velvety consistency. They serve it with the orecchiette — a small, dome-shaped pasta — and top the dish with lightly roasted roma tomatoes, shaved parmesan and ricotta. The ingredients came together in a symphony of flavor, crafting an enchanting dish that now visits me frequently in my dreams.

Although my friend and I were alarmingly full by this point in our meal, we decided to split a tiramisú — the most classic of Italian confections — for our last course. Tavola’s tiramisú transcends every other one I’ve tried in Charlottesville. Its delicate, cloud-like texture featured perfectly baked ladyfingers, which avoided the common pitfall of sogginess that mars many other tiramisús. The secret behind Tavola’s tiramisú is their house-made zabaglione — a sweet, fluffy custard made with egg yolks, sugar and wine. Tavola’s chefs meticulously fold mascarpone into the custard, crafting the tiramisú’s distinctive texture — an extra effort that truly makes the dessert.

Our delicious meal was elevated by the high caliber of service at Tavola. Our waitress was just as excited to serve our food as we were to consume it — she was extremely friendly and proved highly knowledgeable about the intricacies of each dish. I left the restaurant genuinely wanting to become her friend.

Tavola is an excellent restaurant, and I truly could not recommend it enough. Though Tavola’s prices put the restaurant out of reach for casual dining, it’s an ideal spot for a celebratory occasion or a dinner with visiting parents. Tavola promises an unforgettable culinary journey, blending traditional Italian craftsmanship with a flair for innovation.

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