Pizza is America’s favorite food. It attracts almost everyone and offers so many possibilities in terms of toppings, crust and preparation. Most pizza places are content to be mundane, and many of those that strive for greatness sadly fall short.
Despite the arguments over thick crust vs. thin crust or traditional toppings vs. gourmet toppings, we're always looking for a great new pizza place. A Tavola, which recently opened in the now-thriving Gateway Quarter district of Over-the-Rhine, is my idea of a great pizza place.
A Tavola is modern and stylish with an open kitchen, an inviting bar, a diverse crowd and a wonderfully unique menu. Although it’s only been open for a few weeks, it certainly isn’t a secret. Business appears to be booming, and deservedly so. On a recent rainy Tuesday night, while waiting for a table (yes, a wait for a table on a Tuesday!), the staff reluctantly had to inform us that they had been so busy that they actually ran out of pizza dough. Not to be deterred I returned the next night, along with CityBeat news guru Kevin Osborne, for a fantastic meal.
I had eaten there once before, just after they opened, and the experience had been hit or miss. This time, however, most everything was perfect. A Tavola obviously has attentive management. The pizza I had on my first visit had disappeared from the menu when I returned. Our server said that they are constantly listening to the opinions of their customers, and if something isn’t working, it will be changed. If only more restaurants had this attitude!
Another sign of good management is their staffing selections. I rarely, if ever, talk about service, but Kris must be singled out for his superb assistance. This personable and professional young man was the ideal server. He offered suggestions, was friendly, seemed proud of the food at A Tavola and would be an asset in any dining room in the city.
The menu is small but making a decision as to what to try is almost impossible. I must, however, insist that you start with the Dates ($6). This appetizer of four sweet dates stuffed with homemade sausage and wrapped in house-cured bacon is easily the best bite of food that I have had in 2011. The flavor profile is complex and greatly enhanced by the richness and smokiness of the bacon. Attention to detail is what takes this simple dish to a level of elegance.
Other appetizers include a vibrant and fresh Grilled Asparagus Salad ($7). The lightly grilled asparagus is paired with prosciutto, pine nuts, shaved parmesan and zesty lemon vinaigrette. There are also several choices of bruschetta (all $4). We tried the Sweet Corn and Ricotta Bruschetta. While Kevin really enjoyed it, I found it to be the weak link of the meal. The ricotta was fresh, grainy and creamy white as it should be, but I thought it lacked flavor. On a positive note, the bread was nicely crisp and held up well to the soft ricotta. The next time I want to try the Eggplant Caponata and Goat Cheese Bruschetta, as from a distance it looked stunning.
The Neapolitan-style wood-fired pizzas quickly arrived at our table. Every time that I have eaten at A Tavola I have been amazed at how quickly the pizza is served no matter how busy they are. I later learned from owner Jared Wayne that A Tavola has a state-of-the-art Ferrara family pizza oven made in Naples, Italy. Ferrara ovens are considered to be the finest pizza ovens in the world and cook pizza between 800 and 1,200 degrees. This oven also allows the kitchen to efficiently compose and bake a pizza in nearly record time.
We first tried the Cauliflower, Salsa Verde and Fontina pizza ($12). The crust was thin, perfectly charred and crisp. The cauliflower is roasted and sweet, the salsa verde is a family recipe of the owner and the fontina cheese is just sharp enough to give every bite a perfect taste. I didn’t think that it could get better than this, and then came the Fig Jam, Prosciutto, Arugula and Fontina pizza ($14). The sweetness of the fig jam combined with the saltiness of the prosciutto, the peppery taste of the arugula and the earthy woody taste of the fontina equaled pizza nirvana. This sweet and savory combination is daring but works oh so well.
These pizzas are thoughtfully constructed, the toppings are designed to complement and bring out the full flavor of each ingredient and the wood-fire oven consistently produces a delicate and light crust. These people really know not only how to make a great pizza, but they also are experts at flavor profiles. A Tavola is a welcome addition to the dining scene and as long as they maintain the high standards they have established for themselves, will hopefully be around for a very long time.
Go: 1220 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine
Dining Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday
Entrée Prices: $10-$14
Red Meat Alternatives: Most of the menu and all pizzas can be made without meat if requested
Accessibility: Fully accessible