September 5, 2018

Tastes of the Mediterranean

Pita, falafel, hummus, and more come to the Blue Wall at UMass Amherst

The truth is hard to swallow, but believe it or not, pizza—that longstanding college staple—wasn’t selling well at the Blue Wall after its 2013 renovation.

The variety and quality of food at the Blue Wall in the Campus Center and at other UMass Amherst dining spots has earned the campus the Princeton Review’s accolade as number-one for Best Campus Food for an amazing three years in a row. The myriad stations at the popular Blue Wall offer Asian food, including Chinese, Japanese, Thai, and Vietnamese dishes; Mexican food; salads; burgers; sandwiches; and more. Amid this bounty and with more students looking for healthful eating options, old-fashioned pizza was overshadowed.

Innovation as well as variety make UMass food great. Enter Joanne Weir ’75, who consults with Ken Toong, executive director of auxiliary enterprises at UMass. This renowned chef came up with a concept to reimagine the Blue Wall’s pizza station and brick oven. Weir, a culinary instructor and cookbook author who also has a television cooking show and runs her own restaurant, envisioned a tapas-style café serving small plates of Mediterranean food.

The new food station at the Blue Wall opened one year ago and is called Tavola (Italian for table). Tavola serves restaurant-quality food from southern Europe and northern Africa, including hummus, fresh-made pita, falafel, kofta skewers, and small flatbread mini-pizzas. Weir worked closely with a team of UMass chefs to bring the tastes of the Mediterranean to Amherst, using authentic ingredients such as Greek olive oil and Italian tomatoes and pizza flour.

Today, UMass chef Nabil Fahmy, a native of Egypt, oversees Tavola—and it’s thriving. “These are the flavors of my country,” he says, pulling a perfect, pillowy pita from the oven and adding it to an artistic mezze platter of hummus, salad, and falafel.

Students, both those familiar with Mediterranean food and those new to the cuisine, now flock to Tavola. Hilary Besson ’20, says that it is one of her favorite places at Blue Wall. “I used to think I didn’t like falafel,” she says. “The falafel here made me change my mind.”

Joining Besson for lunch, Paloma Caceres ’18, says the creamy, just-made hummus is “near and dear to my heart.”

Palestine-born Amani Altell ’21, says Tavola reminds her of her mother’s cooking. “It makes me feel like I am eating homemade food,” she says.

According to Toong, Tavola fits with the three tenets of UMass dining—healthy, sustainable, and delicious. And traditionalists can still grab a yummy slice of old-fashioned pizza across the way at Harvest Market.