Tavolo shines as the latest Peabody Square bright spot

Owner Chris Douglass, manager Megan Cullinane, and chef Maxwell Thompson on opening night at Tavolo in August. Photo by Bill Forry

It was hard to imagine, while sitting at the bar at Tavolo on Election Night, with the loud hum of excitement and every stool taken, that none of this existed a year ago. Dorchester's newest restaurant to shine a bright light on Peabody Square was merely a construction zone at this time last year. Prior to that, it was a dimly lit concrete turn around for MBTA buses at Ashmont Station.

But now, Election Night, Saturday night or otherwise, Tavolo - pronounced with an emphasis on the first syllable - which is Italian for "table," welcomes guests for hearty and inventive Italian cuisine.

Tavolo owner Chris Douglas, a resident of Dorchester for twenty years and well known as master chef of Icarus in the South End, has been spearheading the renaissance of Peabody Square since he opened the Ashmont Grill in 2005. The Ashmont Grill is an older, wiser sister to Tavolo and has perfected weekend brunch, wine tastings, and most importantly, an atmosphere that is both warm and vibrant enough to make neighbors next door and those across town feel at home.

Tavolo, located within the sights of the Ashmont Grill at Peabody Square, does not, according to Douglas, pose competition for the established Ashmont Grill. Rather, Douglas perceives Tavolo as an extension of culture at Peabody Square.

"[Tavolo] is another causal eatery, another place get a good bite to eat," at the Square, he said. "I think we compliment each other. In conception and design, I wanted to differentiate from the Grill. The price point [at Tavolo] is less, offering different cuisine, a different style of food," he said.

Douglas said Tavolo and the Ashmont Grill are complimentary in the sense that, "Places and neighborhoods become destinations for dining when you have a critical mass," and he hopes that the Ashmont T station/Peabody Sq. continue to evolve as a destination for both the Dorchester community and beyond.

The menu at Tavolo centers around a pasta and pizza theme, capitalizing on savory ingredients such as cremini mushrooms, cheeses from fontina to provolone, and a sweet and tangy house marinara. A plate full of Tavolo sauce is a terrible thing to waste. One of the most popular items for take-out (as well as in-house) is the spaghetti and meatballs. The meatball itself, which is roughly the size of a tennis ball, is a combination of veal and beef and is slathered in that magnificent marinara. This meatball also stars in a panino of its own - another take-out favorite. Dessert is compulsory at Tavolo because the gelato is the best thing for the palette after a sauce-laden meal, but also because it is the best gelato outside of Rome. All theatrics aside, the ultra-nutty pistachio gelato, paired with the cherry biscotti will cause you to forget those economic woes and remember once more la dolce vita.

Sweet also is the modern decor and the thoughtful arrangement of the restaurant-at-large. The horseshoe-shaped bar is accommodating, with plenty of flat screen televisions overhead that attract the afterwork crowd and passers-by (a glimpse into the large windows from outside of the restaurant at street level affords the neighbors a quick check of the score). There are two main dining areas set off from the bar. One can be closed off for private parties of up to 40. While the high ceilings and the varnished cement floor might suggest potential for a noise problem, the designers had foresight and installed ceiling panels that absorb much of the sound - a feature that diners with small children in their party can appreciate. But say your first date conversation is not exactly begging for more intimacy. Simply sit back, enjoy another glass of wine (glasses run $6-$10), and admire the grand walls of chalk art and bide your time until the requisite gelato course.

The vision for Tavolo has been a few years in the making, in cooperation with management of the Carruth building in which Tavolo is housed (along with neighbors At Home Realty, Flat Black Coffee, Wainwright Bank). Construction around the complex is still in flux, but housing units and businesses are all fully operational and will hopefully lend to the "desination" that is Peabody Square. For now, getting in on the ground floor is easy. Look for the doors marked Tavolo. Tavolo is located at 1918 Dorchester Ave., Dorchester.