Tavola Italian Kitchen is an aberration. It shouldn't be here. By it I mean a small, well-crafted, reasonably priced Italian restaurant that draws heavily on local and sustainably sourced ingredients. By here I mean the Hamilton Marketplace, a Novato shopping center of yellow stucco buildings and red-tiled roofs just off Highway 101. The setting is well suited to the Olive Garden, but a restaurant that breaks down whole hogs for pork terrine and sausage, makes its own pasta and has great service to match? What's that doing here?
Walking in the door, you're greeted by an open kitchen and the yellow glow of a furnace-like gas-fired oven from which the cooks pull superb, thin-crust pizzas. At the top of my list is the salsiccia pizza ($14), made with house-made fennel sausage, broccoli rabe, creamy crescenza cheese and a sprinkling of Calabrian chiles. The pizza margherita goes for just $11, and that includes real buffalo-milk mozzarella.
For openers, my favorite starter was the coppa di testa ($13)—that's "headcheese" to you. But forget about disturbing packages of shrink-wrapped pig parts, this is something totally different and delicious. As mentioned, Tavola buys whole pigs and attempts to use every bit of the animals. Wonderful pork bits and pieces end up in the coppa, served alongside chilled and marinated beets and a lightly dressed salad of peppery upland cress.
I almost didn't order the arugula and radicchio salad ($9.50) because of its pears and hazelnuts, but the kitchen has a light touch and I was not disappointed. Those going to Tavola for lunch should try the Kitchen Sink salad ($12), a hillock of whatever fresh greens and vegetables are available that week from Greenleaf, Tavola's produce vendor.
I've got a soft spot for any place that serves sardines, and Tavola offers a puttanesca-esque dish made with Monterey Bay pilchards, a larger variety of sardine in a spicy sauce of tomatoes, Gaeta olives and lemon oil and paccheri, a rough-cut, tubular pasta ($14). It would be better with in-season tomatoes rather than canned, but it's a simple dish with big flavors. For something even more substantial, the pork Milanese ($24) combines breaded cutlet of pork with roasted Brussels sprouts and a rather waxy cannelini bean stew.
Desserts include standard items gelato ($5), buttermilk panna cotta ($6) and an insanely dense and chocolately chocolate tart ($6) dusted with flaky salt and a dribble of olive oil. Or go for the zeppole ($8), Italian doughnuts filled with house-made Nutella or strawberry jam.
The inner strength of Tavola is due in large part to co-owner John Paul Pirraglia, an East Coast transplant who's a welcoming and knowledgeable presence. Ask for a food or wine recommendation, and expect a thoughtful conversation to follow. He adds the attention to detail and enthusiasm that one expects from an owner-run restaurant. What I didn't expect was to find it in a shopping mall, but like the restaurant, it's definitely a welcome find.