Italian was spoken in my family as I grew up but by the adults only. They spoke Italian to communicate “grown-up issues.” You know, all that stuff that we kids “shouldn’t know about.”
Plus, speaking Italian was a hangover from the Old Country and while my parents were proud of their heritage, they were first-generation Americans who wanted the next generation to be all-American, free from the bigotry of the past. Right or wrong, I grew up not being able to speak or understand the language of my roots.
So, when I learned of Tucson Italian, I decided to take a class to make up for lost time. Not only did I learn passable Italian, but I also ate well and made friends.
Classes are held at Tavolino Ristorante Italiano on Thursdays and Fridays, are taught by Dr. Theresa Levy, Ph.D., and include lunch. (more about that later.) Levy taught Italian at the University of Arizona and Pima Community College. In all, she’s been teaching Italian for over 35 years.
Levy grew up in Tucson and earned her Ph.D. in Language, Reading, Culture, and Anthropology from the University. She lived in Italy for several years where she translated for the Vatican Levy. She is also fluent in Spanish, French, and Portuguese and is a damn good vocalist.
She and her husband, Mike Levy, perform around town regularly with their Latin jazz group, Nossa Bossa Nova. They’ve recorded several albums. Mike owns 11:11 Recording Studios and Chef Records.
But don’t let all of that talent intimidate you. Levy is a warm, friendly, and incredibly patient person that’s full of life and excited about sharing her love of the Italian language and culture.
“I love getting to know everyone in the process, facilitating conversations, and creating lifelong friendships,” she noted. “I gear the classes to the desires of and levels of the people in the group and offer something for everyone.”
Two levels of classes are offered: No Experience Necessary and Non-Beginners.
The beginner classes use handouts that Levy created during her many years of teaching, ranging from simple vocabulary to grammar and usage. Levy uses a whiteboard to facilitate learning. It’s all very casual and fun.
“Whenever there’s someone new in the no-experience-necessary group, we spiral back to the beginning material, and everyone enjoys the review,” said Levy. “The non-beginner classes are more free-form with conversations in Italian. Some people prefer the free-form format, and enjoy listening and challenging themselves to see how much they understand. Everyone is welcome to choose which level they want to attend.”
Oh, and did I mention lunch is included?
In 2003, Tavolino originally opened its doors in a tiny spot in the Safeway Plaza on Oracle and Ina Road by Chef Masimo Tenino.
Tenino was born in San Remo, Italy where food and sharing meals were a central part of his family’s life. It was here he developed a passion for cooking using the freshest ingredients. He brought that passion to the U.S. and now has three restaurants: Tavolino in Tucson and two in the San Diego area.
Tenino moved Tavolino to bigger digs further east on the southwest corner of Skyline and Campbell several years later. The space was larger and more spacious, but the vibe remained the same. The food was kicked up a notch or three, though.
The move allowed for a wood-fired oven to be built and today, steaks, chicken, seafood, and pizza are all created using the grill/rotisserie.
The wine list is extensive and heavily Italian, as to be expected, and options are divided by region rather than style.
Some of the best wines come from Tenino’s family. His brother, Paolo, owns and operates a winery in Italy: Azienda Agricola Pietro Rinaldi Winery in Piemonte. They are a perfect complement to many of the dishes on the menu.
Every meal starts with tender slices of fresh bread hot out of the oven. Olive oil and a tasty Balsamic vinegar are served alongside for dipping.
The menu is decidedly Northern Italian which tends to be a little lighter than food found in red sauce joints around town. Service is well-trained, friendly, and warm.
Italian students can order one thing from the lunch menu. Wine, cocktails, and dessert are extra.
Tavolino’s lunch menu is small, but complete, and includes outstanding offerings from antipasti to pasta, pizzas, entrees, and desserts. Portions are generous and everything is plated with an artful hand.
Most of the pasta is made in-house and is certainly some of the best in town. Tender and toothsome, one wonders how they can create such perfect pasta.
The lunch menu offers three homemade kinds of pasta: spinach and ricotta ravioli in a light tomato sauce, pappardelle in a pesto sauce, and tagliatelle in a beefy Bolognese. The last is, not to sound repetitive, some of the best around.
The rich, meaty sauce clings to the pasta and doesn’t overpower the long strands of tagliatelle. The order is huge; filling but not overly so. This is a prime example of Bolognese and fresh pasta.
Antipasti at lunch is also three items: Bruschetta with Pomodoro, Prosciutto with Burrata, and Polipo (octopus). With a glass of wine, one could make a meal of just the starters.
The Polipo stands out. The octopus is charred lightly, cut into tiny rounds, and tossed with circles of fingerling potatoes, thinly sliced onions, kalamata olives, and finely diced celery in a bright, lemony salsa verde dressing.
Italian salsa verde is nothing like the salsa verde served at Mexican restaurants — not a tomato in sight. Instead, lemon is the forward flavor bringing the other tastes and textures together.
Salads are labeled “Large” and they are definitely that. The Tavolino con Pollo is a mix of greens, tomatoes, rotisserie chicken, croutons, and ricotta salata tossed in a champagne vinaigrette. The Nizza is an Italian take on Niçoise, substituting salmon for tuna. The simple, Mista has greens, tomatoes, and goat cheese in a balsamic vinaigrette.
There are three good-sized pizzas as well: Prosciutto e Arugula, Salamino Piccata (spicy salami), and Margherita.
Like the rest of the dishes on the menu, desserts are a little different. The gelati and sorbetto are made in-house. The Crème Caramel, Tiramisù, and Affogato al Caffe all sing, but it’s the Bonet that truly wins hearts. The huge portion of chocolate custard served with amaretti, whipped cream, and caramel sauce is the very definition of a chocolate lover’s dream.
The dinner menu more than doubles up on each course, especially with the pasta and the entrées. The Tajarin al Nero di Seppia, a squid ink pasta with shrimp in a white wine sauce, is just one of the items at Tavolino not found at other local Italian restaurants.
People take Levy’s classes for a variety of reasons. Many, like me, want to learn the language of our ancestors. Those who are fluent appreciate being able to speak Italian with other speakers on a regular basis.
Often folks are planning a trip to Italy in the near future and want to be able to maneuver comfortably through their travels.
And, some, like a few of the women that were taking the class the day I popped in, are relatively new to Tucson and looking for a way to meet people. Levy makes that last part easy with her convivial teaching style. Admittedly, the group is of a “certain age” because of when the classes are held, but Levy also offers private lessons.
“Sometimes people bring their friends, spouses or kid because there’s something for everyone,” said Levy. “Who doesn’t love Italy and Italian food?”
She added, “Learning something new, like a language and interacting socially, is good for the soul!”
And I have to say, “Sono d'accordo!”
For details on times, costs, and how to sign up for classes, go to tucsonitalian.com or call (520) 270-7737. Tavolino Ristorante Italiano is located at 2890 E. Skyline Dr. For more information, visit tavolinoristorante.com.
Rita Connelly is the author of “Lost Restaurants of Tucson,” “Historic Restaurants of Tucson,” and “Arizona Chimichangas,”all published by The History Press. Growing up in a large Italian family instilled in her an appreciation for the important role food plays...