Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Tosca Ristorante Italiano - Durham

Rating: 2 and 1/2 Bay Leaves

Many of you have mentioned you're looking forward to my restaurant reviews. Well, you're in luck - here's my first! My goal is to review restaurants that are local and not chains, but there are a few on my list that are chains, but they're either regional chains or they have few restaurants in the chain, like Firebird's.

Tosca in Durham is owned by Danielle and Antonio Rios, who also own the Blue Corn Cafe on 9th Street in Durham, at which I've also had the pleasure of dining, well, lunching.

I'm a little picky about Italian restaurants because my mom's family is from Naples. I've been to Tosca Twice now, once with a co-worker for lunch and then again Monday with the entirety of my office, about 150 people, as part of an appreciation and service award luncheon. Unfortunately, I have to report that they only rate two and one-half Bay Leaves - both the food and the service are pretty spotty.

The first time I was there, the restaurant was empty except for one occupied table in the center of the restaurant. It clearly looked like the boss taking his staff to lunch. We were seated next to the service corridor instead of at any of the other tables not next to the service corridor. Guess I'm a little picky about that in more upscale restaurants. The soup that day was a chilled melon mint soup, which sounded delicious, but ended up having a grainy texture - like it was just mint and cantaloupe smashed up in a blender. The flavor was nice, though. I ordered cappellini (angel hair pasta) with shrimp and my friend ordered the same pasta with meat balls. The pasta was overcooked and the shrimp appeared to have the shells completely taken off, but actually, they left the shell on the tip of the tail but removed the bit that covered the flippy fin-like bits. That had to take some work! It was quite a surprise when I bit into it! I can understand maybe making a mistake with one piece of shrimp, but every shrimp was prepared this way. My friend's marinara sauce had water pooling in the bottom of the dish, which means one of two things: 1) they are from the school of saucing that a little pasta water helps the sauce cling to the pasta better and just over did it a little, or 2) the marinara was not simmered long enough. I didn't ask if her pasta had been overcooked as well.

Monday, I had their house salad and spinach tagliatelle (a broad, flat, long noodle made with spinach) served with sauteed spinach and tomatoes. The salad was very fresh and quite delicious. It has slices of raw fennel, which was a very nice surprise, and the dressing was quite lovely. The pasta was also very tasty and perfectly cooked, which was surprising considering the huge crowd they were serving. The pasta sauce was a light cream sauce and there was just enough on the pasta. Since this was their vegetarian option, I was dismayed at the lack of vegetables on it. There was a fork-full of sauteed spinach in the bottom of the dish and two halved grape tomatoes. Other than that, it was very satisfying. Dessert choices were a vanilla cake with strawberry filling and vanilla icing or a chocolate flour-less cake. The poor restaurant was so overwhelmed that by the time they got half-way around with the chocolate cake, they were running so low the servings kept getting smaller and smaller to the point that the serving I was given was pretty much nothing more than a dollap splashed onto the middle of a plate. It appeared to be made up of nothing but frosting, so I didn't even try to taste it. Others at my table said it was quite rich and sweet. The vanilla cake suffered from being under-done on the bottom. It looked gorgeous and folks at my table commented that it was very moist - as if it had some sort of liquid in it. This could very well be the case because Italians love drizzling cake with liquors. Unfortunately, it was not very well-liked, as demonstrated by the amount of it was left on tables after only a bite. On my way out, I also noticed there were people still being served the chocolate cake. These plates looked entirely different from the one I had been served. There was a chocolate drizzle artfully sketched on the plate, and then a perfectly carved pie-wedge of dense brownie was placed on top. On top of the brownie was an artful dollop of whipped cream. Yes, I wish I could have tried that dish instead of the embarrassment that was served to me.

Both times I dined at Tosca, the service seemed very overwhelmed. While that is totally expected in a situation with 150 guests, it is strange in a situation where there are only 10. And, I must say, in an Italian restaurant of any level, it is never acceptable for the pasta to be overcooked! I give two and one-half Bay Leaves instead of a lower rating only because the dishes they did well, they did very well and there is clearly someone thinking in the kitchen. With a little more focus and consistency, Tosca has the ability to be quite great. It's just not now.