Star-struck

The celebrity servers stumble at Toscana

It seems significant to me that the billboards and mailers advertising the long-awaited opening of Toscana don't picture mouth-watering veal and mushrooms, or lemon-roasted chicken, but instead look like a lineup straight out of a Milanese fashion shoot. What are we selling here? Against a blank white background, debonair, white-haired Franco Bertolasi poses in an amazingly vivid yellow sport coat with chef David Holben, whose white chef's coat is sticking out like a proud pigeon's chest. They're flanked by two bob-haired lovelies in little black dresses. The girls are Franco's daughters, and they work the front of the house at Toscana, a new Italian bistro just opened by Holben, Bertolasi, and their sometime silent and seldom-pictured partner, Dallas attorney Michael Caolo.

This is the same team that brought you, first, the Riviera, and then, Mediterraneo, both big hits in the risky world of the restaurant business, where--inexplicably--elegance, good food, and attentive service don't always guarantee success.

The advance publicity for Toscana emphasizes personality--celebrity--rather than any of those restaurant basics, anyway. The assumption is, whatever Franco (as everyone who's even once been introduced calls him) and Holben cook up, Dallas wants to eat. All we have to know to show up in droves at a new establishment is, they're in charge. Sure enough, on both my visits, most of the clientele seemed to be Riviera regulars, Franco's gang, loyally (and loudly) checking out his latest and least-expensive venue.

Bertolasi and company have a nose for which way the culinary winds blow. The Riviera is still most often classified as a "French" restaurant, although it's actually stretching southern French and not at all what typifies French food to Americans. It's high-priced, exclusive, and "fancy" enough for high-end, dress-up dining. And it opened back when everyone still loved to show they could afford that style. Mediterraneo in Addison, the group's second venture, broadened its gastronomic parameters (just like every other restaurant was doing) to include the whole, vague "Mediterranean" area. True to trend, now that a return to real regional dining is been touted as the direction smart cooks are going, here comes Toscana, subtitled "cucina della terra." In the words of one overblown press release, this is the restaurant for which Franco has "drawn deep from his native Italian roots"-- meaning that Toscana is actually a real Italian restaurant, not yet another Italianesque one.

The menu--an awful, huge laminated thing larger than our granite tabletop--goes into the Franco Bertolasi story in almost all the embarrassing detail of a made-for-TV movie, a corny touch completely out of keeping with the tasteful-looking restaurant. Toscana has a warm, easy atmosphere, light-filled and pretty, with fresh flowers on the tables. It's well-designed, but it's not trying too hard. Good-looking wicker and iron chairs furnish the front of the room; front and back are lined with banquettes along the mirrored walls. Unfortunately, the banquette tables--almost all two-tops--are too close together, so the couples who crave the most intimacy get the least.

On our first visit, early in the evening on a weekday, the place seemed spacious and airy, and the service was pleasant, aiming to please. On our second visit, at prime time on a Saturday night, we sat in the back room and it was horribly hectic. The wait staff was confused, under pressure, and I'm sure the kitchen was hammered. The busboy trying to reset the next table had a body-slamming battle with our waiter trying to serve our wine. Partly because of how crammed in the tables were, the noise level was incredible. It was difficult to understand what our waiter said, and even harder for him to understand us. Maybe that's why he brought us the wrong salads.

On Saturday, Toscano was buzzing with Park Cities blondes and "foodies," because this team does have an impressive track record: Both Riviera and Mediterraneo are excellent restaurants. Gilbert Garza, chef de cuisine at Toscana, has been at Mediterraneo for some time, so this place shouldn't require much breaking in.

For many Americans the landscape of Tuscany is the landscape of Italy because our vision was shaped by Giotto, Botticelli, Michelangelo, and da Vinci, all from Tuscany. But except for vaguely dividing Italian food into "northern" and "southern," we have no taste of the subtleties of regional Italian food. Toscana, as its name implies, is supposed to focus on Tuscan cuisine. So what is that, exactly? According to Waverly Root's classic book on eating in Italy ("The Food of Italy"), "Tuscany (Toscana) is the heartland of Italy." He defines "heartland" as "the area where [a country's] essence has persisted in the strongest and most living fashion," and even more specifically, as the area that cooks "the most robust form of food, that is meat, in the simplest manner." It's a questionable, even depressing, definition if you try to apply it to the United States. And it's hard to tell whether Root would recognize his heartland in Toscana, either.

Root says that the Florentine cooking that dominates Tuscany is spare home cooking, hearty and healthy, "subtly eschewing of sophistication." I can hardly say that sophistication was eschewed at Bertolasi's Toscana. But then, the cooking at Toscana attempts to be more interpretive than literal, as it should be.

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