The phrase “authentic Italian” gets thrown around the NYC restaurant scene much more often than it should. However, at Hell’s Kitchen gem Tavola, located at 488 9th Avenue, authentic Italian only begins to scratch the surface of the gustatory delights to be found there. Restaurateur, owner, and Italian mastermind Nick Accardi opened Tavola about a year and a half ago in what was once a New York City landmark, Italian grocer, Manganaro’s. Originally opened in 1893, the grocery was family owned and operated until Accardi created the cozy yet innovative eatery that shares the same passion for Italian flavors. Accardi did a beautiful job of paying tribute to the building’s roots, maintaining many of Manganaro’s original features; the shelves and tile work were all original to the store.
What Accardi brought in were time-honored family recipes, and carefully chosen imported Italian ingredients that will bring any true Italophile straight to the streets of Naples. Additionally, he had two giant ovens, weighing a total of 7,000 pounds, made from the volcanic ash of Vesuvius brought in to bake the delicious food (not to mention the added ambiance)! One oven burns at a staggering 900 degrees Fahrenheit, and will cook your Neapolitan thin-crust pizza to perfection in 90 seconds flat! The second oven burns at a lower temperature, cooking appetizers, vegetables and fish to perfection.
In a city where Italian food can be bought on every corner, Tavola distinguishes itself by specializing in a variety of regional dishes. With Chef De Cuisine Giancarlo Dellanzo from Tuscany and Accardi’s Sicilian roots, Tavola seamlessly offers both Southern and Northern Italian fare. The kitchen makes its own pasta in house daily, as well as a 24-hour rise light pizza dough. Each day a pizza, pasta and fish specialty changes with the seasons and locally sourced ingredients. Past specialty pizzas have featured rabbit and wild mushroom, as well as house-made duck liver mousse and gruyere cheese.
Upon arrival, Accardi seated us in a tiny enclave booth which was once Manganaro’s cheese display case. It was apparent how passionate he was about the restaurant and the food, which made us all the more excited to taste anything he wanted to give to us. The wine list, not exhaustive but meticulously chosen offers some of the best Italian wines available. Mr. Accardi chose their Feudi Monaci Falangina to accompany our meals. Arguably, it is one of the best Italian whites we had ever tasted. With an almost sweet, yet smooth finish it easily paired with the spices and flavors of our dishes, while it could have also translated as a refreshing dessert wine. We had to write the name down, not just for the article, but because we are going to hunt for this one at the local wine shops until we can buy a bottle (or five) to bring home.
As soon as the Sullivan Street bread, served with a small dish of La Marca extra virgin olive oil--which Accardi imports from Castelvetrano, Italy --was placed on the table, we knew we were in for a treat. (Even the olive oil was so good that we bought a bottle for $17.95 to bring home, which we know you will do too after you try it.) A small dish of cured olives ($4.75) and eggplant caponata ($9.75) was to follow. The slightly spicy marinade was fresh, light and delicious. Accardi explained how Italian American food is often associated with heavy (sometimes uncomfortably so) dishes. True Italian cooking is light, fresh and doesn’t leave you feeling over-stuffed and weighed down. This is why the real Neapolitan pizza has such a thin crust. This was evidenced by Tavola’s Greca pizza ($16.50), prepared with barrel-aged feta, spinach, Gaeta olives, basil pesto and mozzarella. The scent of the pizza as it wafted toward our table was proof enough for us, but the taste was literally unbelievable. Having a Neapolitan food critic on staff for this piece, we knew the stakes were high when it came to reviewing authentic pizza, and we are proud to report that he stated that this was the most authentic and delicious pizza he has had in the entire city. Other mouth-watering pizza options include the Brussels sprout and pancetta pizza ($16.75), sopressata and fresh ricotta pizza ($16.75), and even a nutella and strawberry dessert pizza ($15.75)!
Next, Mr. Accardi brought us a swordfish steak (market price), lovingly coated with a salmoriglio sauce, a southern Italian specialty with lemon, garlic, olive oil and herbs. Accompanied with some stewed plum tomatoes, it melted in your mouth with each bite. Swordfish can sometimes be dry, but this was moist, tender and utterly delectable. Accardi explained that Tavola has two types of fish specialties each day (ranging in price), a whole fish that you can debone yourself (like a true Italian), and a secondary fish option where they have done the work for you. Famous for their seafood, we recommend coming twice so you can give both options a go. Other entrees include house specialty, Eggplant Parmigiana ($18.75) which is baked and much lighter, as opposed to how it traditionally battered and fried. There is also the Grilled Esposito Sausage ($21.75) with Sicilian eggplant, provolone, plum tomato and mozzarella.
We closed our meal with Tavola’s specialty cannolis, house made biscotti, and authentic Italian espresso mixed with Sambuca. The light almond biscotti was a perfect accompaniment to our after-dinner drink. The cannolis are a must-try. The shells are flown in from Palermo, and the pistachios that top the cream are Bronte pistachios, imported from Sicily, also known as the best pistachios on earth. Tavola also adds some candied orange peel pieces, which make these cannolis unlike any you have had before.
Tavola offers happy hour with half-price wine every day from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. Its off-the-beaten path 38th St. and 9th Ave. location makes them close enough for pre-dinner pizza and drinks, but far enough to avoid the over-priced, over-crowded and over-done Theater District fare. In our opinion, it is the best dinner spot in the area, and arguably the best authentic Italian in the city. And again, with pizza done in just 90 seconds, this is the perfect place to share some pies with friends or a date before a show. To learn more about Tavola and where Nick Accardi sources his delicious ingredients check out a documentary on Tavola here. Impress your out of town guests, your friends or your next date and bring them to Tavola ASAP.