The inviting aroma of oregano, tomatoes and dough rising in the oven hits diners the moment they walk through the door. The sounds of glasses clinking, children playing and laughter travels just as fast, echoing through the narrow dining area at Tavolino Pizza & Lounge.
Tavolino is a casual, neighborhood pizza joint if there ever was one. Outside the brick building, guests sit under a shaded veranda overlooking the Algiers Point ferry terminal and levee, with New Orleans' skyline lighting up as day turns into night. Inside, bar patrons hold court in the front, raising pint glasses and digging into happy hour snacks, as families and couples pack the tables that fill the wood-paneled space.
The restaurant, which opened in June in the building formerly occupied by Vine & Dine, kept the previous tenant's shotgunlike layout, where a front bar leads past the cash register and kitchen door into a long, narrow dining area. It's a space that can get loud quickly and imbues a sense of community rather than intimacy.
The menu is a model of Italian-style simplicity done right, with a short list of pizzas and fresh ingredients handled with classic techniques. Daily specials often involve seasonal items. On one visit, watermelon slices were served with wedges of burrata, mint and a drizzle of balsamic glaze, a perfect summer dish.
Tomato-basil risotto goes into arancini, with light golden brown fried orbs oozing melted mozzarella cheese. Nodi di pasta, are, literally, little knots of dough, baked until soft and crispy outside. A selection of flavorful dipping sauces ranges from a bracingly fresh oregano-heavy marinara to a velvety goat cheese whipped into submission with truffle oil and honey. Also good is olive pate, a unique lavender-hued dip that carries the characteristic punch of Kalamata olives but is sweet and creamy, without any of the brine and bite of tapenade.
As the restaurant's name implies, the main focus is pizza, and there is a short selection of pies with thin, chewy crusts. Most pizzas are large enough to feed two people.
A medley of roasted mushrooms tops the funghi pizza, which features a creamy, bechamel-like fonduta, a drizzle of truffle oil and a heap of arugula. It's an indulgent vegetarian pie brimming with earthy flavors and saved from overload by the nutty bite of the arugula. Also great is a prosciutto and brie version with San Marzano tomato sauce, thick slices of the salty cured ham, brie, mozzarella and arugula.
For dessert, the kitchen impresses with a small yet creative selection of sweet finishes, including a daily gelato special. It's hard to resist pistachio cheesecake, which arrives like a pot de creme in a small glass ramekin. Topped with tart sour cream and chopped pistachios, each bite was equal parts nutty, creamy and sweet.
I have a soft spot for the bedroom community that is Algiers Point, and dining at Tavolino offers similar appeal. There's a warm neighborhood vibe, where everyone seems to know each other, and the comforts of friendship, family and breaking bread together trump everything else.