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Campanelle pasta with mushrooms, prosciutto and lemon at Tavola restaurant in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

3 out of 4 stars

Name
Tavola
Location
1829 Robson St., Vancouver, British Columbia
Phone
604-606-4680
Website
tavolavancouver.com
Price
Appetizers, $6 to $18, pasta and mains, $17 to $28
Cuisine
Italian
Rating System
casualDining
Additional Info
Open daily from 5 p.m. Reservations recommended.

The only bad thing about Tavola is that I can't decide what to eat.

The women at the table to our left are digging into sage and browned-butter gnocchi so plump and pillowy I'm tempted to lean over and swipe one off their plate.

On the other side, a family of four is slicing though the golden-crisped skin of a brick-roasted chicken. "This is so good!" the father cries, mopping up the silky herb-flecked jus.

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The chalkboard beckons with tantalizing daily specials: grilled pork chop with rapini and marsala sauce, campanelle with asparagus and house-cured guanciale. The server waits patiently. And still, I can't decide.

"Can we order half orders of pasta so we can try more?" Of course we can. The key to an excellent neighbourhood restaurant – beyond great food, drink and ambience – is a willingness to please. And Tavola, a true West End gem, has unlocked my heart.

It took some convincing. When the restaurant opened 4 1/2 years ago, I gave it a poor review. I said the room was cold and unwelcoming, the food inconsistent. Even though I live close by and love Nook (its sibling restaurant around the corner), I resisted going back.

The shiny wood-clad room has warmed up with the patina of time. The uncomfortable old-school chairs have been replaced. The lighting seems dimmer. All the little corners and shelves have filled up with wine bottles, tomato cans and pigs of all sorts. There are cartoon piggy banks and pot-bellied Buddha pigs. The chef cooks and cures a lot of pork, and his regular customers, who keep bringing him these kitschy pigs from all over the world, have slowly asserted ownership over the restaurant's design.

Those regular customers also took some convincing. Before it became Tavola, this restaurant was called Tapastree, a beloved West End institution for 13 years. The owners, chef Mike Jeffs and his wife, general manager Nicole Welsh, could not change a single item on their West Coast, small-plates menu without a riot from their regulars.

They finally got so bored they couldn't stand it any longer and made a wholesale change by ripping up the room and turning it Italian. Their customers were furious. They sent nasty letters and vowed never to return.

Slowly but surely, they started coming back. Dish by dish, they eventually converted. And once again, Mr. Jeffs is stuck in the position where he can't change a single item on the menu without a mutiny.

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Why? Because his robust food is simply delicious. Inspired by Southern Italy, almost all the dishes are cooked with olive oil and chili rather than butter and pepper. That chili sneaks up and smacks your palate in the most unexpected places, be it roasted red pepper crostini or a deeply rounded pork and porcini ragu ladled over toothsome strozzapreti.

The wide array of fresh pasta is all made in house, as are most of the cured meats. The basic ingredients, including heirloom tomatoes from Kelowna's Stoney Paradise canned at the peak of their summery prime, are top of the line.

Mr. Jeffs is a chef who understands the simple basics of making food taste divine. His pork chops, brined with a touch of sugar, are served with char so crackling and crisp you will want to gnaw every last fatty morsel off the bone. Broccolini is hit with a glug of olive oil before it's thrown on the grill so it absorbs the smoke into its blackened bits.

An everyday chicken, split in two pieces and slowly roasted under hot bricks covered under foil, is slathered with fennel pollen, a magical spice that intensifies the flavour of whatever it's matched with while leaving a lingering trace of oddly sweet, mouth-watering anise. Good luck getting rid of that dish.

"We don't do anything too fancy, but we do it well," says Mr. Jeffs, explaining his philosophy. "I have nothing left to prove. I make food that tastes delicious and people want to eat."

And that is what makes Tavola an excellent neighbourhood restaurant. It's about beautifully simple food that tastes so good it will all be devoured before you remember to Instagram it. It's about classy wines poured without gouging. It's about friendly servers who remember what you ate last time you visited. Above all, it's not trendy.

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The restaurant game can be a rat race. Everyone wants to get into the latest hot spot and be wowed, tweet lots of pictures and move onto the next big thing. That's not dining. That's fast-food consumption. Great restaurants like Tavola aren't ready off the mark. They need time to find their groove.

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