After a long flight back from California, I needed something comforting yet not complicated to facilitate my post-holiday re-entry to the working week. Consigliere Keith had been kind enough to give me a lift from DIA, and Louisville’s Via Toscana, an old standby, was on the way home. Moreover, its elegantly rustic setting would serve as a serene antidote to bustling airport terminals. A combination of heavy woods and cloth tablecloths, Toscana also has little in the way of windows facing outside. But the neat trick is that the effect is cozy rather than claustrophobic, and it’s easy to forget you’re dining in a strip mall.
While the menu here consists of straightforward Italian fare, this isn’t just another spaghetti and meatballs joint. The most expensive entrée is the Steak Florentine, a $25 number consisting of a half-pound filet mignon melded with mushrooms and Alaskan crab. More modest — but perhaps equally satisfying — choices include simple angel hair pasta with tomato, basil, garlic and olive oil. This has been a favorite on past visits. There are also calzones, cioppino seafood stew and pasta served up in child’s portions. Pizza choices range from $12 to $13 and tend towards more gourmet toppings such as arugula, goat cheese and artichoke.
Our first courses were solid choices, ably fulfilling the desire for something unfussy. Despite the inexpensiveness of the $3 minestrone, it outshines more costly versions.
Hearty in both flavor and texture (some may recall my constant gripes regarding watery versions of this soup), this interpretation, coupled with bread, would be a meal by itself. Colorful describes the $4 house salad, with its vibrant freight of fresh mixed greens, Haystack goat cheese, tangy roasted red pepper and oregano dressing. A touch more acid, such as a squirt of lemon in the dressing, would have made the flavors pop out a bit more, but I had little to gripe about.
My entree was the $16 gnocchi special adorned with skinless chicken breast and basil. The potato-based pasta was filling and rich, and Toscano wisely paired this with red sauce instead of something overwhelming like an Alfredo. This sauce was solid, although I suspect a zingy puttanesca or even the addition of red pepper flakes would make for a livelier dish. The chicken breast was tender and tasty, and I’d order this dish again.
While the dark sauce accompanying Keith’s $14 chicken marsala made me wonder if the poultry had been mistakenly splashed with a heavy dose of balsamic vinegar, the flavor indicated otherwise.
This was one of the better marsalas I’ve sampled, possessing a perfect balance of buttery flavor and sweet wine against the backdrop of tender chicken. As a matter of fact, this preparation could easily have come from an Italian family restaurant in San Francisco’s North Beach.
Dessert was the supremely decadent $6 Venetian mousse, edged by a delightful chocolate cookie crust. The whipped mousse itself is a complex and ultimately gratifying affair, juxtaposing the flavorful depth of dark chocolate with pleasant milky tones. For the chocolate lover, this is a must-have.
Toscana has come a long way from its beginnings as utilitarian pizza parlor complete with video games. It’s grown into a sophisticated trattoria that can accommodate modest to more extravagant budgets with ease, while leaving all diners satisfied.
Clay’s Obscurity Corner Sourdough starters
Speaking of things San Franciscan, my latest culinary obsession is authentic sourdough bread, and I’ve been reading up on the subject in Dr. Ed Wood’s tome, Classic Sourdoughs. Wood also acquires and sells starters, the cultures necessary to give sourdough its distinctive taste, at his website www.sourdo.com. Of particular interest is the San Francisco starter, the unique product of wild yeast and bacteria found in the Bay Area. Contrary to popular belief, Wood argues that the San Francisco starter can retain its distinctive qualities in an environment like Colorado and that local organisms would not knock out the California culture.
Via Toscana Ristorante 356 S. McCaslin Blvd. Louisville 303-604-6960