Ever since my last summer’s trip to the Tuscan region of Italy, I have been on a gourmand’s mission to find veritable Italian cuisine similar to the dishes that I delightfully savored on “the trip worth a thousand bites” (a play on words from the expression “a painting worth a thousand words”). A couple of weeks back, I posted a write-up on I Ricchi (see review) that was a delightful culinary experience but at the same time quite damaging to my pocketbook. Some of my friends asked me how could they get the coupons that I used to visit these restaurants (easy, sign-up online), or whether I would write-up on an authentic Italian eatery that was more accessible and affordable.
I think the answer to the latter request lies in this review of Tuscana West. I had heard of this Italian restaurant for a number of years now, but it did not make it on my culinary radar due to its location in the financial district of downtown DC, which makes getting there and parking a logistic nightmare most of the time. However, a couple of coupons (yes, those again) popped up on my computer screen, and I decided to give it an opportunity. A number of federal holidays falling on a Monday the last couple of months made it possible for me to drive downtown, park for free (after circling the block a number of times), and pop into their doors on two occasions.
The restaurant is located across from a grassy sloped park and on the ground floor of a nondescript office building. Once stepping into the foyer, you sense the restaurant’s efforts to change the ambience of a utilitarian space into one of casual opulence consisting of a large wooden bar area, draping curtains to separate the dining areas, a white stucco pizza oven, large painted frescoes on the walls, comfortable banquettes, and mood lighting to settle the customer into his or her chair. The menu is quite extensive with the dishes listed in the usual separate courses, much like in the Continent. I decided to focus on a variety of meat and seafood choices, some recognizable and others new to me.
For the antipasto, I ordered Portabello Gratinate, a large portabello mushroom cap that has been stuffed with a heaping amount of fresh crabmeat mixed with breadcrumbs, and topped by a savory mushroom sauce. This is a creative take on the usual stuffed mushrooms that can be quite pedestrian in most places. Its initial impression on me was not too favorable as it looked like a brown hockey puck that landed on the white tablecloth. But once I cut into it and saw the flakes of sweet moist crabmeat, I knew I was in for a treat. And it sure was. Great start with this seafood appetizer, and especially for around $8.
On my second trip, I decided to order the starter from a different angle. While in Volterra, I paid a few visits to the cooperativo (regional supermarket) to get our ingredients for our meals, and I was impressed by the variety and freshness of the fruits and vegetables which Tuscany is renowned for. With this reminisce in mind, I ordered the Insalata di Finocchio, Mela, e Noci on the second visit. It is a salad made up of finely sliced fresh fennel bulb, cubed crisply apples, and whole walnuts. The fennel slices were slightly crunchy with a hint of anise (could have been sliced a bit thinner), along with the sweet cubes of crisp apple, and the crunchy walnuts pieces (a few too many) that exuded a slight bitter note. All the disparate elements were liasoned by a light and tangy salad cream – exciting, flavorful, and refreshing.
The day’s special of Risotto ai Quattro Formaggi was my second course on one of the visits. Fat grains of starchy rice have been slow cooked with broth and enrichened with a handful of creamy Fontina, pungent and tangy Gorgonzola, and both nutty Parmigiano and Grano Padano (the younger Parmigiano) cheeses. This was indeed refined comfort Italian food, and I have not tasted risotto this good in a long time as I did with this bowl. The rice was cooked just right, slightly al dente without its chalkiness, smooth and all’onda (“wavy” looseness) from releasing its starches as a result of proper stirring and sufficient stock, and finally enriched by the rich and flavorful cheeses. I literally had to force my hand to put the fork down halfway through the portion as I had to save room for the next course. Buonisimo.
Beef Stewed in Red Wine and Vidalia Onions on Cous-Cous, Carbonade di Osso all’Aostano, was my selection from the day’s specials on the first sitting. The tender and slightly sweet winey pieces of beef were paired with the grits-like pasta grains. Here we see the combination of Northern Italian influence in the wine-stewed beef and the Southern in the use of cous-cous due to its proximity to Northern Africa. The beef tips were fork-tender while the bed of pasta soaked up the meaty sauce, thus making quite a flavorful pair. The creativity in this dish points to the kitchen’s knowledgable hand in the daily specials, and they are worth paying attention to.
My BFF, Kevin, had his eye on another daily special, Pizza Rustica di Mare, or Seafood Rustic Pizza on the first trip. It is a hand-made pizza, slathered with red sweet pepper sauce, and topped with scallops and fish chunks. The dough had a nice yeasty flavor, enhanced by the slightly sweet sauce (not as sweet as tomato, which can be a good thing for a change), and dotted by moist and sea-sweet pieces of seafood. Most of us would find this pizza rather odd, beyond our perception of the nature of pizza. However, my trip to Italy opened my eyes of the possibilities of this dough concoction, and this restaurant’s version is completely up the alley of creative modern Italian cuisine. My friend ate it with some gusto to which I could not resist a couple of slices myself.
Tagliolini Sepia was high on my list when I perused the menu during one of my meals. The plate arrived with black hand-made pasta (colored by squid ink), coated with a fiery fresh tomato sauce with pieces of grilled young squid nestled on top. The pasta had a slight sea-breeze scent from the ink, along with a lip-singing kick from the well-made and light sauce, which only added flavor to the tender mild pieces of squid. This dish definitely pays tribute to the Southern Italian treatment of its seafood, and my taste buds thoroughly enjoyed it as a contrast to the milder and richer fore mentioned Northern-style dishes.
Walking into the dining room, one cannot help but pass by the dessert tray sitting on a server, working its charm like a scantily clad person winking from an Amsterdam display window. My waiter recommended that I order the Tiramisu or the Limoncello (lemon liquor) layer cake. However, I have a slight weakness for the Italian version of flan, Panna Cotta; it is basically cream cooked with gelatine. This restaurant’s version had a topping of orange marmalade and blueberry compote, which added their fruitiness to the white canvas. The side of Zabaglione custard-like sauce was made with enough booze, most likely sweet Marsala, to make me lick every drop of it. However, it overshadowed the cream timbale, which proved to be just fine but overstiffened by too much gelatine. I think my waiter had every good reason to make his recommendations and I should have listened to him, at least for this final course – Limoncello cake for me on the next visit!
Tuscana West offers true authentic cuisine with touches of the Northern and Southern Italian styles in the well-prepared dishes. The dishes that I enjoyed on my visits have convinced me that I must muster some courage to brave the traffic and parking issues to make it to this wonderful restaurant. More importantly, the prices are just right, especially during lunch when I managed to order four courses for around $50 (the price of blogging for you guys!). Even without coupons, I will be coming back with my friends to savor its tasty authentic dishes with some frequency. This place warrants more visits as it has now become a large red spot on my radar beeping away loud and clear.