I Have Bad News
Regina’s new Italian restaurant isn’t doing it right
by Aidan Morgan
TASTE OF TUSCANY
2167 HAMILTON ST.
I had a job once that took me on the road for weeks at a time. For a few years of my life, I wasn't sure from week to week what city or even continent I'd be visiting. Once I came home from a stay in South Dakota, only to end up three days later at the other end of the world in Darwin, Australia (staying in Darwin, in case you're curious, is sort of like visiting a resort town permanently stuck in the off-season).
It didn't take long before I grew bored with the usual business traveller's fare of hotel restaurants and airport franchises. I grew skilled at dragging my travel-crumpled body out of my hotel room in search of good food. After a while I realized that the safest bet, whether I'd shown up in San Diego or Heidelberg, was the hole-in-the-wall Italian restaurant with the killer wine list, the shaved prosciutto pizza, and an osso bucco that made me cry with gratitude.
Yup, that's my response to great Italian food: tears. Manly tears. Tears of pure testosterone.
When Taste of Tuscany opened up in the remains of Neo Japonica Restaurant (remember their pork-wrapped asparagus? Damn, there go my tear ducts again), I had a rush of nostalgia for those little Italian restaurants scattered across the globe. Regina has plenty of pizza on offer, and there's always Luiggi's or Pasta Prima for good, family-style dining, but what this city has needed for some time is a place that serves high-end Italian cuisine full of complex flavours and ingredients that feel like they were freshly hauled from a farm or hunted down in a nearby forest.
I wish that Taste of Tuscany was that place.
I'm divided on my feelings about Taste of Tuscany. On the one hand, it's a charming place that has shown signs of improvement over the last few months. On the other hand, it has some serious problems that keep me from recommending it to friends and readers. Let's get with some binary oppositions and see if we can't synthesize a conclusion out of this imbroglio.
First off, I have a soft spot for the location. Restaurants shoehorned into houses may not be to everyone's taste but I like the weird geometry and the strange corners that a small space produces. You can go to a restaurant several times and have a completely different experience, depending on where you're sitting.
Taste of Tuscany has three distinct areas. The 'sun room' in front is a bit cramped, but it works for parties of two. The main dining area is good for larger tables, and particularly suited to diners who enjoy watching the restaurant staff whisking in and out of the kitchen and interacting with customers. The upstairs, which Neo Japonica patrons may remember as the 'automatic 15 per cent gratuity' floor, is for larger groups.
Second, T of T is one of the few restaurants in the city that doesn't treat a cup of coffee as an afterthought. Their standard coffee is rich, strong and tasty, and the meal-ending espresso is a thing of beauty. I'm also all up with their house red ($6.95/glass), which is a nice, full-bodied Italian something. I asked the waiter and he sort of mumbled the name. Then he told me the wine was Italian.
The third thing that falls unequivocally in the Good column is the service, which has grown more confident over the last few months. I tried out T of T about six weeks after its grand opening, and the staff were still finding their feet. They would peer around corners at us and approach fearfully, craning their necks as if a short invisible wall separated us. (Why would they have to crane their necks if the walls were invisible? I don't understand crazy waiter logic. I just report it.) On my next two visits, though, the owner and the servers recognized me, shook my hand and generally made me feel almost embarrassingly welcome.
The bad aspects of Taste of Tuscany can be boiled down to two words: food and price. It would be nice if the words were something like "decor" and "cutlery", but there you go. On my first visit I started with a Tuscan salad ($8.95), which had slices of cheese and deli meat tucked in among romaine lettuce. The overall effect was like eating a sandwich abandoned by its bread. I also tried the green salad ($5.95), which took simplicity to an unappetizing level: romaine and thin slices of white onion in a lemon-oregano dressing and topped by a single, lonely olive.
I sampled a range of pasta dishes, with mixed results. The best of the bunch was definitely the lasagna ($16.95), which is a bit heavy on the pasta but warm and filling. The gnocchi rosé with mushroom ($20.95) is okay as well, although the gnocchi was a bit too soft and gluey for my liking, and the rosé sauce was forgettable.
I also ordered the spaghetti bolognese ($14.95) and the penne with Italian sausage ($17.95). They were both bewildering disappointments, and I'm putting their quality down to a bad day in the kitchen. The bolognese sauce was thin and oily, and the spaghetti noodles were undercooked. Not al dente, but undercooked. The penne, strangely, came with a plain, boiled white potato on the side of the plate, sitting in the red sauce and emitting a near-radioactive glow. I cut a piece and took a bite, reasoning that there must be some seasoning or other feature that would explain its presence with the pasta. But no: it was a plain white potato.
I tried again on a quiet evening. This time, I ordered the vitello alla romagnola ($31.95), a veal dish whose cost vaults Taste of Tuscany squarely into the fine dining realm. Maybe the chef really came to life on the high end of the range?
Apparently not. What they laid in front of me was a dish of somewhat chewy veal chunks overwhelmed by a giant pile of noodles. I had been served a pasta dish masquerading as an entree. If they had offered it as a 20 dollar pasta dish, I probably would have enjoyed it, with only a few reservations about the texture of the meat. Veal isn't cheap, but this was plain wrong.
I bring up the issue of price because it's pervasive. Seventeen dollars for a plate of lasagna? Eighteen dollars for a pasta dish that comes with a boiled potato? Nine bucks for a deli meat salad? Something's wrong here.
This hasn't stopped people from eating at T of T. Regina diners, eager as I am for exceptional Italian food, have been trying the place out. Some, no doubt, are satisfied. But for what we're paying, we deserve better. Taste of Tuscany has shown that it can improve its service and build relationships with customers. Let's hope that it can step up and offer a menu with food that matches the bill at the end of the evening. When that day comes, I'll be back.
Taste of Tuscany is open Tuesday to Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 4:30-9:30 p.m., and Sunday 4:30-9:30 p.m. Closed Monday.