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.

You're offered bottled water with your aperitif, then a plate of good sliced bread is brought to the table, as well as an upside-down demitasse on a saucer. The waiter lifts the cup carefully, and a flood of flavored olive oil fills the saucer (an impressive get-acquainted trick I intend to try at my next dinner party).

Most of the food we tried from Toscana's kitchen had a simple, earthy quality that avoided any trick except losing its balance, even though most dishes were strongly flavored, almost over the top, just teetering on the edge of excess. (There is a list of lavish pizzas and a group of pasta dishes, none of which we've tried yet.) The light, yeasty foccacia we tried on our first visit was threaded thickly through with strands of caramelized onions. A mammoth portobello mushroom had been marinated in honey; after the first bite, it seemed almost cloyingly sweet, but it had been grilled till just before it gave up its juices, and the smoky scent and the scattering of creamy blue cheese crumbles with some frilly greens provided a counterpoint. The special risotto had been cooked with barolo wine, cremini mushrooms, peas, and strips of prosciutto that made it almost too salty...but not quite. Trout fillets, shining white, sauteed and served with a kind of stew of braised artichokes to provide the tang that lemon usually does, with brown toasted orzo mixed in with slippery rice-shaped grains, was the only dish that didn't challenge our taste buds, but just coddled them with its easy combination of soft textures and compatible flavors.

A sprightly salad of cucumber and fennel and another of pale yellow hearts of cool romaine, napped with a thick yellow cream dressing and lots of fruity olive chunks, were cool beginnings for a summer meal, once our waiter remembered that's what we ordered.

Grilled rabbit--I'm so glad we're seeing bunnies on more menus--was excellent, served with a crisped risotto cake so violently flavored with lemon that it made your mouth pucker (good with the rabbit but hard on the wine).

Our only real disappointment on the plate was the highly touted Copper River salmon, a special on our second visit. This is the fish of the moment in terms of trendiness, the current West Coast darling. The line-caught, wild Alaskan fish is only available four weeks of the year and our waiter said ours had never been frozen. What can I say? Maybe this was its fifth week. Maybe it should have been frozen. This fish looked good--it was a pretty, hot pink, wet and cool in the center--but its texture was mushy. A few sliced nuts over the top hinted at the alleged almond in the sauce, but its flavor was overwhelmed by the strong taste of fish. Worse, or just as bad, the plate was as hot as an enchilada platter, so the soft mound of accompanying polenta had crusted over the top and the beans, a compote of yellow wax and green, were shrivelled at their tips. (A fun fact to know and tell: The haricot bean, imported from the New World, became so popular in Florence that its citizens were known as mangiafagioli--"bean eaters.") This was a plate that had been under the salamander too long.

The only desserts we tried were the lemon-lime pie, its sweet, soft chartreuse curd garnished with berries and profiteroles, filled with ice cream and drizzled with chocolate.

Wines by the glass were good--we drank a Rodney Strong and a Deloach chardonnay. The wine list featured bottles mostly in the $30 range, and when we asked for a recommendation--a wine to complement salmon and rabbit--our waiter wisely went and asked for advice.

The question is, What was Franco expecting, if not success? I don't know what the finish-out on this location cost, but I would think the previous tenant, Gaspar's, took the bite on most of the redecorating it took to transform Gordo's, a collegiate pizza bar, into a fine dining establishment. And this is not the chic end of McKinney; the landlord must be thrilled to have such a high-profile tenant. Surely Franco and friends could afford to remove a couple of banquette tables to make their patrons' dinner more relaxed, enjoyable--and audible? (The couple next to us was celebrating an anniversary, but had no chance to murmur sweet nothings since we had to actually concentrate not to eavesdrop.) The third time out, this gang of pros should have been prepared for the onslaught. And known how to prepare the staff. It's so certain that Toscana will be a big hit, that I was extra irritated by the little glitches--the slightly sloppy service, the unbearable noise level, the salmon mistake--all of which seem avoidable. But the restaurant business is a service industry; it can get a little tricky when the tables are turned and the servers become the celebrities.

Toscana, 4900 McKinney Ave. at Monticello, 521-2244. Open for dinner daily, 6 p.m.- 10 p.m. Open for lunch starting July 23.

Rosemary Flat Bread $4.50
Grilled Honey-Marinated Portobello $7
Hearts of Romaine and Three-Olive Salad $6
Spicy Chilled Cucumber, Fennel, and Tomato Salad $6.50
Sauteed Trout and Braised Artichokes $15.50
Grilled Rabbit with Lemon Risotto $17.50
Risotto with Grilled Asparagus $11

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