Superb Tuscan

Just like Mama used to make — if Mama wore a tuxedo and ran a restaurant in Affton.

Apr 25, 2007 at 4:00 am
My fiancée asked our waiter if he recommended the risotto. He didn't say no. He didn't say yes. He gave her a look. Pursed his lips, cocked his head to one side. The look said: If you order risotto, you won't be unhappy.


Risotto should be creamy, but with an al dente bite. It doesn't have to be made to order, and I doubt most restaurants have the luxury of doing so, but it doesn't improve with age. That al dente bite is as tenuous as a daydream.

We'd arrived at Trattoria Toscana at 8:30 that evening — we would be the next-to-last table seated — and we'd already ordered and received drinks and an appetizer by the time my fiancée inquired about the risotto.

The risotto is good, our waiter said. But given the time and the nature of risotto, maybe something else — say, tortelloni alla boscaiola — would be even better.

We appreciated our waiter's honesty, of course. (And that tortelloni is a few dollars cheaper than the risotto.) Ask your waiter's opinion these days, and you're lucky to hear anything more honest than "Our customers love it," which usually means, "Our customers would eat my shoes if we battered and deep-fried them."

Better yet, our waiter understood the food. He and my fiancée briefly discussed making risotto at home. So when he told me the kitchen turned out the best veal chop in town, I was inclined to give it a try.

The chop was a tremendous T-bone — almost as big as my head, and I have a big head — broiled and then finished in the oven, served in a heady sauce of veal stock spiked with white wine and black truffles. The meat was well charred, black and crisp along a few edges, but nearly purple at its center. Is it the best veal chop in town? I don't know for sure, but it was my favorite of the dishes I tried at Trattoria Toscana — intensely savory, yes, but with an undercurrent of lamby sharpness.

The chop was served with a side of penne rigate tossed with olive oil, garlic and butter, but I hardly touched this, the veal was so filling. And as the veal, despite my best efforts, refused to disappear from my plate, I regretted having begun my meal with both a simple antipasto of roasted red peppers with anchovies and fresh mozzarella and a Caesar salad. The antipasto was light and flavorful, but the salad was utterly forgettable, nothing more than pale lettuce in a vaguely eggy dressing.

The tortelloni alla boscaiola our waiter recommended was a fine dish. Not flashy, and certainly not as impressive on the plate as the veal chop, just satisfying. The tortelloni (a larger version of tortellini) were stuffed with a mixture of sausage and ground veal and served with chopped prosciutto, peas and mushrooms in a sherry cream sauce. The sauce was understated, maybe even a little bland, but I liked how it didn't swamp the rest of the dish. You could taste the sweeter prosciutto against the more savory stuffing. You could feel the peas pop against the smooth, al dente tortelloni.

Our waiter, I should mention, was wearing a tuxedo. The sound system was playing the same loop of Italian songs (including a version of "Nights in White Satin," sung in both Italian and English, somehow more overblown than the Moody Blues' original) that I'd heard on a previous visit. We were sitting by the front window, but since this looks out on the restaurant's narrow strip of head-on parking spots and, beyond that, a commercial strip of Gravois Road in Affton, the blinds were drawn. I thought of being a kid, before the chains swarmed into the Baltimore suburbs where I grew up, before I learned about fusion cuisine and million-dollar buildouts, when dinner at a place like this would have been a treat — more than casual, but still comfortable and friendly, not a put-on-a-blazer-and-tie great event, but good.

Chef Kostandin Ceko and his cousin Alban Ziu opened Trattoria Toscana last June, but the place looks and feels as if it has been serving food since the first St. Louisan ordered toasted ravioli. (In fact, before it was Trattoria Toscana, it was another Italian restaurant, Roberto's Trattoria, which reopened in a strip mall in Concord.) There is a small dining room with a bar as well as a second, smaller dining room; the lighting is on the dim side; the décor includes framed pictures of Italy and a map of Tuscany and ads for Italian pastas.

Ceko — Chef Tika, as he's called on the sign outside the entrance and by his staff — is originally from Albania. He told me Albanian and Italian cuisine are quite similar (the two countries are separated by the Adriatic Sea), and for six years he was head chef at Dominic's on the Hill. In spite of its name, Trattoria Toscana features a wide range of popular Italian, Italian-American and St. Louis Italian dishes: chicken alla Parmigiano and pasta in a Bolognese sauce, veal saltimbocca and veal Milanese, fried calamari and, naturally, toasted ravioli. The most Tuscan aspect of the menu might be the brief, affordable wine list, which features three different Chiantis.

On our first visit, my fiancée and I started with the fried calamari, which were somewhat tough and served with a marinara sauce that could have used a dash of red pepper flakes, and melezane imbottite, thin slices of eggplant wrapped around a scoop of ricotta. This was a very good appetizer, mildly sweet and with a rumor of eggplant's acidity — just enough to whet the appetite. It came surrounded by red sauce, which I found unnecessary.

Lobster ravioli were plump and, like the tortelloni alla boscaiola, struck a nice balance between soft filling and al dente pasta. Also like the tortelloni, the ravioli were served in a straightforward cream sauce, here flavored with brandy. This didn't provide much contrast to the strongly flavored ravioli, and the dish as a whole lacked the grace note or twist that would have made it memorable, rather than merely good.

Veal saltimbocca brought three tender filets pounded very thin, sauced with white wine and sage and (insert wince) blanketed with mozzarella. But between the veal and the cheese was a thin slice of prosciutto, and to my surprise its musky sweet flavor overcame the smothering cheese. Although the veal chop is what I liked best at Trattoria Toscana, the saltimbocca struck me as the more representative dish: a conventional approach to Italian food elevated by skill and care.

That care is palpable throughout the restaurant. Our waitress on this first visit, like our waiter on the second, was solicitous without hovering, efficient without rushing. Several times as she put a plate on our table, she said, almost as a whisper, "Made from scratch."

Near the end of our meal, she brought us two glasses of wine we hadn't ordered. A gift from the older gentleman at the next table, she said. We were delighted — and confused.

"Why?" I asked.

A regular, she told us. "He's a very nice man."

And really, at a place like Trattoria Toscana, that's all the explanation you need.

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