The first time I went to Toscana, I was, to say the least, surprised. This boxy room with mini-blinds and a nondescript decor is the Tuscan trattoria that can never give you a table on the spur of the moment? There's a line at the door and nowhere to wait except in front of the pastry table or outside under glaring lights. In the dining room, tables are closely packed, and the noise level is deafening. Yet the maitre d' has a practiced, professional smile for us, and our reservation is ready on the dot.
When Agostino Sciandri began cooking authentic northern Italian cuisine at the now-defunct Il Giardino in the mid-'80s, most of Los Angeles still thought Italian food meant spaghetti and meatballs in red sauce. When he founded Toscana in Brentwood, the austere and simple cooking of Tuscany became the food of the moment. Now, nearly 10 years later, this food is so familiar that ribollita or bistecca Fiorentina hardly need translating anymore. Though Sciandri and his partners have spun off a mini-chain of Rosti takeouts and he has just opened Ago in West Hollywood, Toscana is as busy as ever.
Despite its suburban Brentwood location, Toscana has the feel of a big-city trattoria. Everything is organized to turn the tables efficiently. The menu arrives right away, followed by pinzimonio--celery, sweet red pepper and carrot stalks with a bowl of olive oil and vinegar to dip them in. Servers are at your elbow, proffering mineral water, more bread, different wine glasses. All of this is good if your goal is to eat and run. But when your main course arrives just as you're taking the last bite of your antipasto, it can seem ungracious.
One hot summer night, we ask for the wine list. But few vintages are listed for the California or Italian whites, even for bottles costing as much as $50. Our waiter brusquely explains that Toscana sells so much white wine that it doesn't bother to provide the vintages. Just ask him what we want to know, he insists. What year is the Beringer Chardonnay private reserve? 1994! he answers. Yet when he returns with the $44 bottle, the label reads 1995, not as good a year. He offers no explanation or apology. We pass.
In true trattoria fashion, the antipasti and first courses arrive quickly. Our pizza Napoli, however, could have stayed in the wood-burning oven longer: The thin crust is pale underneath. It's blanketed with bland melted cheese and dotted by a few very salty anchovies. The presen-
tation is correct, but it's not the pizza Napoli I know and love. It should be made with top-notch ingredients and baked till the crust is golden and crackling crisp.
Prosciutto e melone is a different story. You couldn't ask for a more generous serving of juicy, ripe cantaloupe and fine slices of mellow prosciutto di Parma. A salad of baby artichokes with Parmesan shavings and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice would be even better if, instead of this pallid olive oil, the kitchen used a peppery Tuscan extra-virgin oil. Suffering from the same ordinary-tasting oil are arugula salad and an insalata di mare, a salad of boiled squid, clams and mussels that tastes primarily of sharp lemon.
Sciandri cooks steaks on a small movable grill set inside the pizza oven, and the enticing scents of wood smoke and charred meat wafting throughout the restaurant. Who can resist? We order both Toscana's signature bistecca ($24.50) and the fiorentina (that night's market price is a whopping $36). The first is basically a rib eye. Ordered rare, it arrives on the medium side of medium-rare, beautifully grilled and redolent of smoke. I wish the meat had more character, though. The plain cannellini beans served with it are very good, even better with a thread of olive oil. The fiorentina is a massive T-bone that's even less flavorful than the rib eye. It's served with golden roasted potatoes and sauteed spinach.
Smooth-sided penne is perfectly al dente, but its carretteria sauce has been cooked so long that it tastes like pancetta-flavored tomato paste. Fish isn't necessarily something I'd order in a Tuscan trattoria, yet a simple poached salmon garnished with arugula and lemon turns out to be the best main course of the evening.
On my next visit, our table near the back window is quiet enough that we can talk--sporadically. We also have some elbow room. And our genial waiter doesn't hurry us along, though others pace the room, surveying tables, pointedly checking their watches. "I feel as if I'm renting this table for only a moment or two," one of my guests observes wryly.
A beautiful melanzane pizza with thin, elliptical slices of eggplant embedded in fresh tomato sauce is delicious, except for the underbaked dough. A classic Margherita, decorated only with four basil leaves, is better because its crust is more cooked. But nobody likes the special of poached sweetbreads on mushy lentils. Or the watery ribollita, normally a robust Tuscan soup of beans, vegetables and bread. I can't find a single bean or a shred of Tuscan "black cabbage," even though I see cavolo nero at the farmer's market the same week.
Wild mushroom risotto is fine, richly flavored with fresh porcini, but a special asparagus risotto with saffron tastes more like overcooked rice than risotto. Spaghetti with calamari and hot pepper is also very nice. Toscana's pollo al mattone, grilled chicken cooked under a terra-cotta brick, is three big pieces of mahogany-skinned chicken encrusted with charred rosemary. The shame is that it's completely dried out. Cotoletto milanese (Milan's version of Wiener schnitzel) looks delectable, too, pounded very thin, coated in bread crumbs and fried to a golden brown, but it has as much taste as cardboard.
Tuscan cooking relies on the integrity of impeccable raw materials. Dishes are so straightforward and simple that there's no way to disguise inferior ingredients or heighten their flavors. When I sit at the counter one night and watch the cooks, I can see that they know what they're doing. After a decade, Toscana's food remains admirably true to the spirit of Tuscan cuisine, but it falls flat. Without better ingredients, no matter how skilled the chef, dishes end up as pale imitations of the real thing.
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AMBIENCE: High-energy trattoria with fast service and high noise quotient.
BEST DISHES: prosciutto and melon, spaghetti with calamari, pollo al mattone, bistecca with cannellini beans, poached salmon.
WINE PICK: 1990 Cappezzana Carmignano Riserva, Tuscany.
FACTS: 11633 S. San Vicente Blvd., Brentwood; (310) 820-2448. Lunch and dinner daily. Pizzas, $5 to $14.50; antipasti, $5 to $14.50; pastas, $9.25 to $13.50; main courses, $12.75 to $36. Corkage $10. Valet parking.