First look: At Tavola, a Tuscan staycation in downtown Minneapolis

You're going to be wowed by plate after plate of authentic Italian pasta, but save space for the impossibly creamy rhubarb and strawberry panna cotta ($9).

You're going to be wowed by plate after plate of authentic Italian pasta, but save space for the impossibly creamy rhubarb and strawberry panna cotta ($9). Sarah Chandler

Considering that it’s only mid-October and Minneapolis is already getting snow, you’re probably perusing vacation porn on your “breaks” at work.

So, some heartwarming news: Did you know that it’s possible to take a mini-Tuscan vacation at Tavola, the lovely new Italian restaurant in the recently unveiled Elliot Park Hotel?

My friend and I discovered this by accident on a recent Friday lunch, as conversation veered toward a favorite mundane topic: other people’s vacations.

“What’s driving me crazy this week is that five or six people on my Instagram feed are all traveling in Italy, right now. Not together, but independently.” My friend, a veteran world traveler, sighed and picked up his menu.

The sourdough and focaccia comes from the kitchen's showpiece wood-burning stone oven.

The sourdough and focaccia comes from the kitchen's showpiece wood-burning stone oven. Sarah Chandler

I nodded in sympathy, despite my lack of Instagram account: I knew firsthand how a nasty outbreak of FOMO, triggered by images of Mediterranean frolicking against luscious backdrops of fountains and piazzas, can render one’s immediate surroundings as appealing as a bowl of day-old polenta. However, our server had already delivered a glass of the best lemonade I’d had in ages—fresh and citrusy and mouth-puckeringly tart—so I simply couldn’t get too worked up about how we weren’t lounging al fresco under a clock tower in Siena or Cortona.

Like so many hotel restaurants, Tavola is an all-day affair––from breakfast to happy hour to dinner––but unlike most hotel restaurants, Tavola bills itself as “affordable.” (A word so wildly subjective it begs to be kept in quotes.) Most of the lunch menu is $16 and under, including the tortas. In Italy, a torta usually denotes a sweet or savory cake or pie, but Tavola’s version is hearty sandwich more akin to a Mexican torta. One is even a burger. Here, the restaurant shines: The kitchen makes sourdough and focaccia in a showpiece wood-burning stone oven.

We buckled to the charms of the roasted seasonal vegetable torta, served on focaccia. The recipe is an unexpected delight—chewy and coarse and full of air pockets—which deviates from the dense, close-textured variety found in some of the Twin Cities' fine Italian joints. Because it’s lighter, it’s perfect for sandwiches. Our only complaint was that the fresh mozzarella felt more like a thinly spread condiment than a worthy counterpoint to the hearty roasted veggies.

A few bites into the Triple Threat Risotto (wild boar, oxtail, mussels) my friend seemed to forget about any fun he wasn’t having in Italy. Its fragrance—earthy and rich, autumnal and heartwarming—wafted across the table as he pushed it over to me. Risotto is a notoriously tough dish; even a serviceable one can quickly become gelatinous, gluey, or dry.

This was the kind of risotto one could imagine eating in a farmhouse in the Italian countryside, with a glass of dry red wine, after tramping around in the forest in search of an old Roman ruin. Suddenly, I felt almost sorry for those Instagram posters: They were probably eating soggy pizza in Roman tourist traps, poor things, while we were in Minneapolis enjoying an impromptu Tuscan staycation!

Conosco i Miei Polli, which literally translates to "I Know My Chickens," $23

Conosco i Miei Polli, which literally translates to "I Know My Chickens," $23 Sarah Chandler

The handmade pastas, which are wisely served in first-course and main-course sizes, are labor-intensive knockouts. Take the Picci Aglione, with its deceptively simple-sounding sauce of garlic, tomato, basil, and olive oil, dusted with parmigiano. The classic sauce allows this blissfully chewy, al dente of your wildest starchy fantasies al dente, to shine.

According to chef Aaron Uban, the unique texture of this Tuscan specialty is down to none other than “salt, hot water, and a mix of high gluten and all-purpose flour.” He adds: “And if you skip the cheese, it’s vegan.”

Usually, I’m not one to embrace the staycation. In my mind, it’s no vacation. Even from an etymological perspective, a staycation lacks the prefix “vac-” from the Latin vacare: to be unoccupied, idle, free, at leisure. Still, if I could procure a $10 bowl of authentic Tuscan picci ($13 with a meatball) at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Ninth Street, rather than having to trek to a 16th-century village somewhere east of Florence, maybe it was time to rethink my staycation attitude.

A look inside.

A look inside. Sarah Chandler

Predictably, because you are in a hotel restaurant, there’s a salmon filet and a couple of expensive steaks on the menu, along with a delectable-sounding porchetta with black lentils, kale, and lemon. We found that the Conosco i Miei Polli ("I Know My Chickens," $23) can be taken almost literally: One bite and you understand that the chef does know his chicken. Stuffed with ricotta and spinach, dressed in walnut pesto, and served on roasted parsnips, it’s close to heavenly.

The views here weren’t bad here, either. Sun streamed into the expansive windows, casting a glow on the rich wood floors, their wide planks more redolent of a rustic country hotel than, well, a Marriott. (You wouldn’t guess it, but the Elliot Park is part of the chain’s Autograph Collection.) The dining room’s natural wood floors, along with the warmth of its amber, stone, and pewter décor, save it from belonging to the anonymous color palette of upscale chain hotels.

After a spot-on, impossibly creamy rhubarb and strawberry panna cotta ($9), we sauntered—very, very slowly—into the chic lobby, the infernal fires of Instagram-fueled FOMO extinguished.

My friend’s condo was across the street, which I suppose made this an actual staycation for him, the lucky bastard.

“And now,” he announced, his eyes glazing with bliss and carbohydrate-induced exhaustion, “I am going to take a nap.”

Tavola Italian Kitchen + Bar
823 Fifth Ave. S., Minneapolis