First & Last Tavern Is Hartford’s ‘Original Special’ Italian Dining Hotspot

First & Last Tavern website

With winter truly, finally gone (or at least leaving after long overstaying its welcome) there’s a spring fever-style urge to break out of hibernation and travel around the state in search of enjoyment. Principal among the desires, surely, is a yen for fine dining in interesting surroundings.

It may not be first-nature to respond to that call to action by Googling to find restaurant discoveries deep within the urban environment of Hartford. If you’re in the capital for business, XL Center events or cultural offerings, you might naturally look for the best before or after restaurant options downtown—but the corps of those who naturally align adesire for discovery with Hartford geography is fewer than it should be.

While the city’s challenges are real, “Hartford Has It,” as the rebranding campaign suggests, and one thing Hartford has in spades is terrific restaurants, including many that may not be in marquee locations but merit discovery by a much wider audience.

The original First & Last Tavern, located deep within the city’s South End on Maple Avenue, is the perfect example of a destination in the rough, and it’s one that’s been sought out by the likes of Al Gore, John Madden and other famous folks. (There are also franchise locations in Middletown, Avon and Plainville, and another opening this summer in Glastonbury.)

First & Last—so named because it’s the first tavern you encounter when entering Hartford, or the last when you leave—is blessed with decades of history and tradition, a wonderful club-like atmosphere with walls full of historic photos, an everybody-knows-your-name vibe, a friendly veteran staff devoted to owner Patrick DePasquale, and most of all, delicious Italian food and coal-oven-fired gourmet pizzas.“Best pizza in Connecticut!!” raves one fan in a Google review. “The Italian fare is old school recipes; if [you’re] from Italy you feel like [you're] back home, if you’re not and just love Italian food you'll be very satisfied, and the cannolis are to die for, great place for a date!!”

“One of my favorite parts about this place is that the bread basket they serve you is fresh from the bakery across the street,” adds a review on Yelp. “Sweet cinnamon raisin bread and seasoned garlic pita. We got our basket refreshed it was so damn tasty. Doughy and perfect, not crusty and flakey.”

That’s right, First & Last Tavern, which has been there since 1936, was joined in 2004 by First & Last Bakery Café across the street. It’s where they bake the artisan breads and make the cakes, cookies, muffins, croissants, pastries andmore—including homemade sausage for the restaurant and proprietary pasta sauces that you can buy in jars and take home (traditional, marinara or puttanesca, $7 or $8.) The café serves breakfast and lunch, offering sandwiches, salads, soups and paninis.

We sat down with DePasquale for lunch recently and were delighted by everything about First & Last, from his stories about how passionate his parents and other family members were in establishing and shepherding the business to chatting with regulars dining in the cozy wood-paneled confines of the “Original Tavern,” and the details behind the homemade nature of everything on the menu. (And, yes, the bread is amazing; the bread basket is huge, starring thick slices from a crusty Italian loaf and pieces of savory focaccia.)While Italian classics form the heart of a broad and extensive menu—with unexpected highlights like a raw bar sampler with four each of shrimp, clams and oysters for $18—the pizza is so legendary and tempting that it commands attention.

First & Last’s pizza is made in a unique coal-fired brick oven—unique because there’s a huge constantly rotating surface inside the oven (set at 450 to 500 degrees) and the pizzas cook fully in one nine- to 10-minute rotation. The heat of the coal fire gives the crust that great black char. (There’s a coal room downstairs, and a coal chute in the rear parking lot for deliveries.)

The pizza with fresh clams, garlic, parsley and olive oil beckoned, as did the pies with chicken, artichokes, mozzarella and red onions (red or white) and others, but we tried a traditional tomato pie with First & Last’s homemade sauce, grated cheese and fresh basil (no mozzarella). Light yet bursting with natural flavors it was perfect. (You can also get gluten free and whole wheat crust on the pizzas.)Next we dove into the reason so many loyal fans return to First & Last over and over again, the “Original Special" (left).

As the website explains of the tavern, “For many years, it was known as the “tradesmen’s bar” when the 'Original Special' of pasta, with a meatball/sausage and salad on a single plate was served at the bar or in a booth, often with a draft beer or glass of wine.”

Spaghetti or shells, a homemade meatball and generous piece of sausage, along with salad, all served on the same plate—and made special by the “house” sauce—what gets better than that? (Maybe the fact that it’s just $13.95.)

There’s simply too much on the menu to attempt a laundry list of what to try. That said, our next-time list includes theCioppino ($22.95), the classic dish with shrimp, scallops, mussels, clams and calamari, sautéed with garlic, simmered in Marinara sauce and served over linguine, along with rigatoni Bolognese ($17) with First and Last’s own meat sauce, butternut squash ravioli ($18) with browned butter, fresh sage and toasted pignoli nuts—and, of course, fresh clams in their shell over linguine ($19.95), and Puttanesca ($17.95): Tomatoes, garlic, imported olives, capers, anchovies, and hot peppers over linguine.

And those dishes are barely scratching the surface of what the menu has to offer, with plenty of Happy Hour specials making it a smart move to visit for $5.50 wines by the glass and $3 draft beers. (And small or medium two-topping pizzas are half-price.)

First & Last Tavern is located at 939 Maple Avenue. The phone number is 860-956-6000. For hours and information about the other locations, see the website at hartford.firstandlasttavern.com. While the tavern is deep within Hartford’s South End, not far from Trinity College, it’s not difficult to find. It’s a straight shot from the end of the Berlin Turnpike, for example, not far from Exit 27 off I-91 and easy to reach by following New Britain Avenue from West Hartford.

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