As far as I understand from my 13 years in this state, only non-native Rhode Islanders would travel more than ten miles for dinner. We were taking a friend out to celebrate his 40th birthday and looking for an excuse to try Tavolo, which I’d overheard was “a piece of Federal Hill in Smithfield.” It was a Saturday night, and I didn’t mind trading the traffic for the suburbs. Though Tavolo is in a strip mall, the Ferrari parked outside did deliver the Atwells vibe.
Owners Leonard and Sherri Mello owned the restaurant’s predecessor (D Carlo Trattoria) for about a year when they decided to give it their own touch. The significant interior renovation and expanded menu impressed many regulars. Tavolo’s dinner menu has some Italian standards, like Calamari, Caprese salad and Veal Parmesan. It also has a few creative options that caught my eye, like a Pulled Braised Chicken dish with gnocchi, pancetta, mushrooms and escarole.
We were seated at a table next to the raised bar area, packed with enthusiastic drinkers. Though we were some of the younger diners in the room that night, the restaurant was quite energetic. It was loud, though the volume was appropriate for a Saturday night. A talented pianist played the genre of song that’s somehow simultaneously melancholy and upbeat, epitomized by Elton John’s “Rocket Man.”
Black Stallion Pinot Noir was on the specials list that night, and we started a bottle as we browsed the appetizers. Our Fried Risotto Balls came four to an order in a bowl of marinara. They were almost the size of baseballs and exploded with creamy cheesiness as we cut into them. The Grilled Tuscan Provolone Sausage was served over a hearty helping of sautéed broccoli rabe, topped with shavings of parmesan.
A pizza sounded good, even if it meant we had to maneuver a stand onto our small table. The Garlic Oil pizza was a fun combination, with broccoli rabe, prosciutto, olives and fresh mozzarella. The crust was thin but not floppy. Tavolo has an extensive wine list. Luckily, our waitress was enthusiastic about wine and eager to make recommendations. After we finished our first bottle, we switched to the 2012 Monsanto Chianti Classico Reserva, which received a 92-point rating from Wine Spectator.
I was excited to try the Prosciutto Wrapped Cod, a creative and delicious dish. The cod filet was wrapped in a giant slice of prosciutto and served in a shallow bowl of mussel chowder with roasted fingerling potatoes. My husband’s Porcini Rubbed Filet Mignon was topped with a sunny-side up egg and hollandaise. Tavolo’s wild mushroom and asparagus hash, also available as a side, comes with this steak, which was cooked perfectly to order. The Porcini Stuffed Purses & Truffle Butter is a good side to add to the steak. This pasta shape, officially known as fiocchi, are adorably rustic.
Our friend had the Frutti Di Mare with capellini. If you need a refresher pasta lesson, that’s a little thicker than angel hair but thinner than spaghetti. In this classic dish, it was combined with a spicy red sauce and mussels, scallops, shrimp, squid and littlenecks.
We coyly asked the waitress if the pianist took requests, and before we knew it he indulged us with not only our friend’s namesake song (“Daniel” by Elton John) but also a round of happy birthday. Our Dessert Sampler emerged with the requisite candle, perfectly timed.
The Dessert Sampler is enough for a crowd. The long, slim rectangular plate was stylishly adorned with four desserts: key lime pie, tiramisu, a s’mores brownie and NY style cheesecake. My favorite was the S’Mores Chocolate Brownie, which is also available by itself. The fudgy brownie was topped with a giant homemade marshmallow and graham cracker ice cream.
With so many good options closer to home, I don’t venture to Smithfield often. But sometimes a meal is worth the drive.
Tavolo Wine Bar and Tuscan Grille
970 Douglas Pike, Smithfield