Tucson loves pizza. We love it at 2 a.m., on the go, or even world-class with a glass of wine. Though we’ve had a recent boom of fast-casual pizza joints, we also have a fantastic selection of gourmet pizzas from wood-fired ovens. For the latter, Tavolino Ristorante Italiano is a leading contender.
Tavolino owner and chef Massimo Tenino is no stranger to good pizza. He was born and raised in Italy, cooked in Los Angeles for five years, then San Francisco for another five years. In 2003, he opened Tavolino. In 2012, he opened Isola Pizza Bar, which won the Best Pizza in San Diego award from the listener poll from rock station 101 KGB.
Although Tavolino’s happy hour pizza is a tough value to beat, they’re actually an elegant Italian restaurant at the core. The warm wood tables and white tablecloths make it worth dressing up for. The walls are lined with large windows facing the courtyard, filling the room with soft indirect sunlight.
In addition to pizza, happy hour includes Italian small plates and tempting drink specials. Bites range from $5 to $8 and cocktail specials range from $6 to $8. Italian beers are $4, while the seasonal Iron John’s Brewing Company is $9. Glasses of wines range from $6 to $15. Wines are mostly Italian with a couple of California exceptions. The Pietro Rinaldi Winery wines are from his brother’s vineyard in Piemonte.
The burrata pizza ($8) is the king of their pizzas. Burrata, made out of mozzarella and cream, provides a lush but bright richness that doesn’t weigh you down. The fresh organic tomatoes and prosciutto bring some savoriness to the table, while the drizzle of extra virgin olive oil rounds the package together with a hint of fruitiness.
If you’re really into umami, you must try the Ligurian-style sardenaira pizza ($6). The thicker crust, similar to focaccia, is topped with tomato sauce, olives, garlic, anchovies, and oregano. With such potent flavors and aromas, you might want to save this for a family occasion rather than a date. It’s worth it.
If you can’t resist the rustic luxury of an egg yolk, the arugula con l’uovo pizza ($7) is right up your alley. It’s topped with pancetta, parmesan, arugula, truffle oil, and an egg. Pair it with a glass of bubbly Moscato d’Asti from the family vineyard to contrast the silky textures.
The small dishes are addictive finger food. The arancini ($5) are fried risotto balls stuffed with smoked mozzarella in a spicy sugo. It’s a divine and devilish combination of crunchy, creamy, soft, gooey, and spicy. The farinata ($6) are essentially garbanzo bean French fries with sea salt and truffle oil.
Their formaggi ($6) is Tavolino’s cheese board with wine marmalade and walnuts, while their salumi ($6) is hand-cut salami with olives and marinated artichokes.
Cocktails generally include three or four ingredients, keeping the theme of refined simplicity. The Venetian Spritz ($6) embraces the Italian love of orange with Aperol, prosecco, and a slice of orange while Casino Royale ($6) features Cocchi Americano, gin, and Manzanilla, making it a perfect pair to the formaggi and salumi.
For dessert, try the Tavolino Lemon Drop ($8). The blend of vodka, house-made limoncello, and basil will leave you refreshed instead of guilty.
Tavolino Ristorante Italiano is located at 2890 E. Skyline Dr. and is open daily. Happy hour runs daily 3-7 p.m. in the designated bar and patio areas. For more information, visit tavolinoristorante.com. To keep up with their specials, visit their Facebook page.