Ethan Stowell, vaunted chef/owner of Seattle's haute-cuisine haven Union, has successfully replicated the flavor of the Mexi-Fry™. The fried polenta nuggets ($11) at his new Belltown restaurant, Tavolàta, taste exactly like Taco Time's version of the tater tot, he says. He's not joking, and he's happy; like all good Seattle natives, Stowell recognizes Taco Time's vast superiority over Taco Bell. And he's right—the light semolina-flour crust and the slightly grainy polenta combine to match the local chain's weirdest product in flavor. Dangerously hot from the deep fryer, served with pungent anchovy/olive oil bagna cauda dip, they're a drinking snack nonpareil. Demand will be high late-night; Tavolàta is open until 2:00 a.m., seven days a week. The similarities to fast food end here.
While Union is a temple to fine dining, Tavolàta is a home for Italian food, if home were a cavernous loft with scarred and shined wood floors, exposed joists high above, arguably perfect lighting, and an open kitchen and full bar staffed with handsome men. People will say that Tavolàta feels like you live in a better city—Vancouver, New York, whatever—but it is exactly the kind of place that makes Seattle's inferiority complex increasingly absurd. Tavolàta makes you feel like you live in a better world.
People will say that Tavolàta is loud (as it is cavernous, loftlike), that you have to wait too long (no reservations are taken; service can be slow-paced), that you have to sit right next to strangers (tavola means "table"; half the seating is at a single, very long one). Life should be loud sometimes; the virtue of patience here meets ample reward; if you must have a two-top, go somewhere else. If you want possibly the best pasta ever, though, going somewhere else is the wrong move.
At Tavolàta, all the pasta is house-made. The pasta shapes that are always made by machine in Italy, then dried and shipped around the world? Made by an Italian machine in the basement—after the wheat for the flour is ground on the premises, too. A simple dish of rigatoni with tomatoes and Italian sausage is a revelation. The noodles, possessed of a fresh, springy, bouncy quality, also have a texture that's less slick, more sauce-sticky, absorptive of flavor. It is pasta that demands profanity: It is fucking fantastic. I would eat this pasta at this price—$12–$15 per generous portion—sitting in a stranger's lap. The menu changes regularly, which is scary until you realize that whatever you get (lamb ragu, oxtail manicotti, conghilie with seafood) will become your instant new favorite. Recently, diners were transported by sautéed gnocchi with artichokes and olives, a surpassing idea that's even better in reality, like hash browns via Heaven. Those unafraid of mad-calf disease ordered ravioli filled with a mixture of ricotta and veal brains, bathing in brown butter: a dish you feel smarter for ordering.
But these are all secondi. To back up a bit, the first courses: also simple, carefully considered, immensely above par. Sometimes the kitchen makes its own mozzarella ($12) with buffalo milk imported from Italy: a cheese so fine, so tasty, it recalls the fluffiest, most cartoonlike cumulonimbus clouds, seen from above on a plane; it etches itself into your sense-memory. A half-dozen broiled oysters ($13), served on a glinty bed of rock salt, are cool, creamy purity inside, covered in toasty, herby breadcrumbs and dosed with olive oil. Veal (again, yes; close your eyes and imagine the veals gamboling in a meadow) carpaccio's melty texture and subtle deliciousness ($12) is augmented brilliantly by aggressive white anchovies.
If you make it to a traditional main course, you either have a superhuman appetite (light food this is not) or you're skipping pasta, which is criminally insane. Entrées serve two—an enormous T-bone ($45), maybe, or seared tuna ($28) atop cool cauliflower, artichokes, and olives overdressed with olive oil—and only a few are offered. With all the pleasures elsewhere, these third courses are overkill, the menu itself seems to admit.
The full menu is served until 1:00 a.m.; the place is open until 2:00 a.m. It bears repeating. This, too, is revelatory, surpassing, brilliant, possibly the best news in Seattle at night ever. Surprisingly, Tavolàta's current most popular late-night bar snack isn't the Mexi-Fries™ approximation. It's zeppole ($6), lemony doughnut holes, squishy and warm and toasty, gently powdered with sugar, ordered with a shot of Jäger and/or a beer.