Tuscana West

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.

Crabmeat Portabella Gratinata
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.

Fennel, Apple & Walnut Salad

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.

Four-Cheese Risotto

Four-Cheese Risotto
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 braised in Red Wine & Couscous

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.

Scallop & Fish Pizza

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.

Grilled Squid and Squid Ink Pasta

Grilled Squid and Squid Ink Pasta
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.

Panna Cotta

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.

Tuscana West on Urbanspoon

I Ricchi

Living in different countries and continents, my family has always had a challenging time figuring out a city for us to come together in order to spend time with each other. The last time that all my siblings and parents managed to convene in a single place was 2006 in the most central point between Australia, Malaysia, and the USA – Hawaii. Ironically, it took less time for my folks in Australia to get there than my travels from Washington DC; a missed connection even further extended my trip to around 18 hours long!

So, last year, when my cousin, living in London, invited the family to her summer home in Tuscany, Italy, most of us jumped on the invitation without any hesitation. It was a great opportunity for my sisters’ families, me and my parents to catch up with each other, and for us to savor the Italian experience. This has always been a dream of mine to travel to this part of the world for its amazing scenery, architecture, fine arts, and culinary arts. The 11-day trip through the Tuscan countryside and stay at Volterra exposed me to its glorious cuisine that gave me a new perspective on Italian food. It was this foodie’s dream come true and a trip worth a thousand bites.

Being an online restaurant coupon junkie, I sometimes am tempted to buy as many offers that show up in my inbox. But when two sites advertised such discounts for the upscale restaurant I Ricchi, I did not have the slightest hesitation in clicking the “buy” button as I had heard about this reputable place for many years but had never visited it, despite both of us arriving in DC at the same time in 1989. With a newfound appreciation for authentic Italian cuisine, I knew I could not forego these opportunities, and it was time for me to visit the Italian restaurant to re-live my Tuscan trip.

House-made Foccaccia
Entering a high-end restaurant with impeccably looking staff such as I Ricchi can sometimes be a bit unnerving and maybe intimidating. But upon stepping into the foyer, there is a slightly relaxed charm about the place that is quite devoid of stuffiness. The front desk staff were nice and amenable to me, especially after I requested a well-lit table for my photography. My waiter, Justin, was professional, warm, and personable, and he was quick to put me to ease with his charm and knowledge of the menu. Right then, I knew I was in good hands and ready for a wonderful culinary journey. A basket of house-made slices of rosemary-topped and tomato-topped focaccia with large sea-salt granules immediately transported me back to Levanto where I stood in line for 30 minutes for this freshly-baked bread (which was truly divine), and this restaurant’s version was superb. The journey had already started with the first wonderful bite.

Truffled Polenta and Balsamic Mushrooms

I decided to “travel” on these Tuscan dining experiences (two visits in a week) the Italian way by ordering my meal in various separate courses, very much like how it is done on the Continent. On my first visit, for the antipasti course, I ordered the day’s special of Truffled Polenta with Mixed Mushroom (Polenta Tartufata ai Funghi Farciti). The heady scent of truffle oil in the soft rich polenta cake was delightful from the first mouthful, which quickly brought me back to Volterra where I had a heavenly dish of Ricotta gnocchi topped by a tall heap of truffle shavings.   Surrounding this cornmeal mound was a melange of sautéed portabello and porcini mushroom that had been deglazed with Balsamic vinegar. It was a very satisfying dish but after some time, I could not detect the delicate truffle scent once it was overwhelmed by the sweet and oaky vinegar. I had wished that its dark glaze was drizzled around the dish which would allow the diner to control its level of intensity in relation to the truffled polenta. However, such detail did not deter me from wiping the dish clean.

Orange, Fennel, Arugula & Pecorino Salad

A Salad of Arugula with Orange, Fennel, and Pecorino Cheese (Ruccola con Aranche e Pecorino) was the opener on my second trip. The peppery arugula leaves were tempered by the sweet orange segments and slivers of shaved pecorino cheese that added a smooth nuttiness to the biting greens. It was a well-made salad that was balanced by the different strong elements on the plate. I nearly forgot about the very thin fennel shavings that seemed to be missing the anise-like flavors for I suspect they had been macerated in lemon juice, which mellowed them out – this missing flavor dimension would have given the dish that extra touch. Nevertheless, it was definitely worth ordering this classic Tuscan Salad.

Ricotta Spinach Tortelloni and Sage Butter Sauce

For the pasta course, I ordered the Tortelloni in Sage Butter Sauce (Tortelloni al Burro e Salvia). This is another classic with large-size tortellini made from thin fresh pasta filled with a savory mixture of Ricotta cheese and Spinach. The sage scented butter sauce was the perfect accompaniment to the delicate pillows. The hint of lemon juice in the sauce was the right amount of acid to cut through the rich butter and Ricotta. The pasta was cooked al dente the Italian way which tends to be firmer than what we over here prefer it to be. Maybe a minute more in the boiler would have been perfect for my taste, but the stuffed tortelloni dish was just the right pasta course.

Papardelle with Rabbit Ragu

On the next visit, I decided to go for a dish that was similar to a wild boar pasta dish I had eaten throughout my Tuscan trip – Fresh Pasta with Rabbit Sauce (Pappardelle Sul Coniglio). Wide ribbons of egg pasta were covered with a tomato-based sauce, which was cooked with aromatics of sweet carrots, mellow onions, and pungent celery. Chunks of tender rabbit meat enrichened the ragu that was paired with the wide and delicate pappardelle, whose broad width added to the dish’s heartiness. I could not help but relive the sense of satisfaction similar to eating the Italian wildboar version as this restaurant’s offering did conjure up the same flavors on my taste buds – another successful classic pasta dish that I could eat more of!

Grilled Steak, Red Onion Rings & Truffled Spinach

The Tuscan countryside is reknowned for its high quality meats that end up on the table as main courses or cold cuts. With this in mind, I focused on such offerings during my two visits. The day’s special offering of Grilled Steak with Onion Rings and Truffled Spinach (Bistecca al Ferri con Cipolle Fritte e Spinaci al Tartufo) caught my eye on the first visit. The steak was perfectly cooked (medium-rare) and it was juicy due to its heavy marbling. Its stay on the firewood grill gained a level of smokiness that reminded me of the humongous Bistecca Fiorentina that I savored in Volterra. The choice of red onions for the Onion Rings added an unexpected sweetness in this obligatory side order. The truffle oil in the sautéed spinach added a nuttiness and je ne sais qoui that elevated the dark greens. This steak may not be the superlative Chianina beef that I tasted in Italy, but it sure was close to it judging by what was left on the plate.

Lemon Rosemary Lamb Chops

Costolette D’Agnello a Scottadito was my meat course on the second trip. It is grilled lamb chops marinated in lemon and rosemary. The thick tender pieces of lamb had a rosemary scent that cut through any “gaminess” that this meat could sometimes exude, while the hit of lemon juice further mellowed the rich lamb. The first bite took me by surprise with a citrus jolt that hit the taste buds first. But upon chewing the meat, the various elements mixed rather harmoniously into a tasty bite.  A fried polenta cake and some broccoli with shiitake mushrooms were satisfactory sides to the meat.  Another successful meat course on the menu with this dish.

Walnut crusted Cheesecake

An Italian dining experience would not be complete if one did not have a few bites of Dolci or Italian dessert. The menu has the recognizable offerings of Tiramisu, Biscotti, and Gelatos. Even though there was not much room left for this final course, I ended up with the house’s version of Walnut Crust Mascarpone Cheese Cake (Torta Di Formaggio). It is a lighter cheesecake whose crust, made with bits of walnut, sets it apart from others. A light sauce made up of pieces of strawberry macerated in lemon juice was the right partner that provided enough sweet citrus hit to cut through the cake’s richness. It was difficult to put my fork down despite the level of satedness I was already feeling.

I Ricchi serves a clientele that comprises of DC bigwigs and members of the diplomatic and politico communities. And such clout and the restaurant’s well-established reputation are reflected by the not-so-modest bills that I received at the end of my meals. But this restaurant offers, in my estimation, an excellent authentic Italian culinary experience that is worth your money. This is not your everyday eating joint, but one which is worth visiting once in a while, especially when the urge to travel, either first time or a subsequent trip, to Italy is itching within. This foodie’s restaurant visits were quite worth the money spent, and they sure beat the price of a round-trip ticket to Europe, if only for a short moment, until the sense of wanderlust for Italia returns again.

I Ricchi on Urbanspoon