307 W. Pierpont Ave., Salt Lake City ; 801-328-3463
A bustling cosmopolitan trattoria. Pasta dishes and tableside Caesar salad are impressive. Service is stellar once you're seated.
Cuisine: Italian, Mediterranean
Hours: M-S, 5:30-10 p.m.
Liquor: Full Service
Recommended Dishes: Tutta pasta sampler, gnocchi, tagliata fiorentina.
November 9, 2005
Missteps mar Cucina Toscana
By Mary Brown Malouf
When opening a restaurant, "location, location and location" are three key requirements. To keep one open, the most important consideration is timing. But passion is the single quality that lifts a restaurant from good to excellent. Good cooking and good service both hinge completely on timing. When the kitchen or the wait staff misses a beat -- like they did on a visit to Cucina Toscana -- the customer's whole dining experience is thrown out of balance.
Our party of three had a confirmed 7:15 p.m. reservation on a recent evening. We arrived at 7 p.m. to find the industrial chic entryway in the old Firestone tire building full -- it was standing room only -- with co-owner Valter Nassi air-kissing hands in every direction and the host perspiring profusely, but in vain. There were more people than seats available.
Servers, holding plates high, paraded through the entryway en route to the Limonaia, a private dining room. A busload of diners -- men in Italian shoes and designer glasses -- were escorted through to one of two other private dining rooms.
We waited. We waited until 7:45 p.m., when three regulars swept in, hugged Nassi and were ushered into the restaurant. The other threesome waiting with us stomped out. The host ran after them, offered ice water and an explanation about lingering 6 p.m. diners, and the three came back to wait some more. The food, the host assured us, would be worth any wait.
Finally, at 8:15 p.m., we were seated at one of the long banquette tables opposite the open (and loud) kitchen. The bad impression made by the poor timing at the door was salvaged by the perfect timing of our server, who brought us a plate of complimentary bruschetta, grill-marked and heaped with ripe, end-of-season tomatoes, chopped with a little olive oil.
The tutta pasta sampler plate ($14.95), ordered as a first course for two, held hand-folded ravioli -- the spinach-ricotta filling vivid and fresh tasting under parchment-thin pasta napped with sage-accented brown butter sauce -- and pillowy gnocchi, livened with a peppery arrabbiata sauce. The lasagne della casa ($14.95), a thick square smothered in finely textured Bolognese, was beautifully restrained in its construction -- the pasta sheets just barely glued together with besciamella.
Another house specialty, spinaci al salto con calamaretti e gamberi ($8.95), also relied on pristine ingredients and simple preparation: tender baby calamari, sweet firm shrimp and barely wilted leaves of young spinach tangled together on a plate. The flavors melded perfectly.
Our server highly recommended the night's fish special, pan-seared escolar ($25), a thick, white brick of meaty fish bathed in a silky wine sauce tinged with pureed red bell pepper.
Another special (the list is extensive and changes seasonally) of pounded pork tenderloin medallions with a sweet fig glaze was touted in bold type and exclamation marks on the menu ($24) but deserved less punctuation and more seasoning: The seared meat slices were tender but bland and the fig seeds speckled throughout did not give enough texture to enhance the overall drabness of the dish. Dried out roasted potatoes and tough green beans served on the side did not help the plate.
The pollo della casa ($19.95) from the regular menu, was also out of balance: The breasts -- resting atop creamy risotto -- were pounded to melting thinness but too much tart lemon and pungent caper berries drowned out the herbs in the butter sauce and overwhelmed the risotto.
On the other hand, the tagliata fiorentina ($24.95) showed that there's more to steak preparation than a hefty cut and a hot grill. The New York strip was served sliced and dressed with only pepper, lemon and a drizzle of olive oil, setting off the natural flavor in the classic Florentine style. This time, our potatoes had been roasted more recently.
Dessert was a simple scoop of vanilla gelato ($3.50) with surprisingly sweet strawberries. Of course, the inevitable tiramisu ($4) is also available.
The kitchen and wait staff were clearly "in the weeds," as cooks say, on our first visit -- our wine came long after our food, there was a traffic jam behind our table because of the Caesar salad cart (the salad, $10.95 for two, is properly made tableside here) and Nassi had a hand-waving temper tantrum with several of his unflappable servers.
We were apprehensive on our next visit when our reservation had been misplaced, but we were seated quickly and the atmosphere was pleasantly energized. Nassi seemed calmer, the kitchen seemed quieter, our server was just as meticulous, though the food was still uneven.
One could wish for better bread, more wines by the glass, more attention to vegetable cooking and -- most of all -- a restaurant able to honor its reservations. Despite those shortcomings, Cucina Toscana deserves its place as a favorite among diners.
Nassi was the creative force behind Il Sansovino, in the old American Store's Building, a brief but beautiful moment in Salt Lake City's dining history -- a restaurant opened at the wrong time in an unlikely location. And he is the engaged and excitable life force behind Cucina Toscana. This is an independent restaurant fueled by passion; good restaurants always are.
Tribune's rating system
1 star Good
2 stars Very good
3 stars Excellent
4 stars Extraordinary
$ Entree under $10
$$$$ Above $25
1 bell Quiet (under 65 decibles)
2 bells Can talk easily (65-70)
3 bells Talking somewhat difficult (70-75)
4 bells Raised voices (75-80)
A bomb Too noisy for normal conversation (80+)
The Tribune covers the cost of all meals at reviewed restaurants. Star ratings are based on a minimum of two visits. Ratings are updated continually based on at least one revisit. There is no connection between reviews and advertising.