Food that’s favoloso: Tomasso Trattoria triumphs with Italian cuisine in Southborough

MetroWest Daily News : February 2005

SOUTHBOROUGH — Plenty of ethnic restaurants talk about the authenticity of their cuisine. Few deliver with the panache of Tomasso Trattoria and Enoteca in Southborough.

In fact, the Italian restaurant even has its own word for its raison d’etre: “Italianicity.”

The eatery describes “trattoria” as an informal restaurant serving simple Italian dishes and “enoteca” as a wine bar. Just don’t equate simple with unsophisticated or ordinary. This food would feel right at home on a table in Tuscany.

The restaurant’s Tomasso is Thomas Prince of Sudbury, who owns the establishment with his wife, Mary, and Lorenzo Savona of Brookline, who serves as its general manager and wine director.

Their stated goal in creating Tomasso was to bring “the excitement and quality of Boston and New York City dining to the suburbs.” This dining just happens to be served with a pronounced Italian accent.

“We wanted to replicate what we found in Italy,” Mary Prince said.

The restaurant accomplishes this task by offering multiple courses and placing a premium on freshness. Every dish at Tomasso is homemade. For example, all the pasta, breads, pizza dough, sausage, porchetta, tomato sauce and meatballs are produced on the premises. Ditto for the desserts. It also uses artisanal and locally grown ingredients whenever possible.

Tomasso opened in November at The Crossings, an upscale plaza on Rte. 9 that had been the longtime site of the White’s Corner restaurant. Before getting involved in the restaurant business, Thomas Prince worked as a high-tech executive.

Following his retirement in 2003, the Franklin native had a career choice to make. “He said, ‘I’m either going to be a math teacher or open an Italian restaurant,’” recalled Mary Prince, who also worked as a high-tech exec and now serves as Tomasso’s marketing director.

Her husband’s Italian background, love of Italian food and the fact that no food like Tomasso’s was being offered in the area convinced him to go the restaurant route, Mary said.

To gain experience, he worked at the Hingham location of the Black Fin Chop House and Raw Bar. To help operate their first restaurant, the Princes forged a partnership with restaurant veteran Savona and then hired their staff.

The team includes chef Antonio Bettencourt of Peabody, formerly the executive sous chef at Upstairs on the Square in Boston, and Northborough native and Southborough resident Mary Bergin, formerly the pastry chef at Spago in Los Angeles who now performs this function at Tomasso. They are a talented duo.

In addition to showcasing their memorable food, Tomasso benefits greatly from the presence of Savona, former owner of Les Zygomates in Boston, and a wine expert who has assembled an impressive wine list for the restaurant. He also conducts wine tastings at the eatery Thursday nights at 7. These are informative and entertaining and the food that accompanies the wine is exceptional. Attendees also get a sampling of the restaurant’s quality cuisine.

The Tuscan-inspired menu, which changes seasonally, includes antipasti, salads, pastas, pizzas, soups, sandwiches, meat and fish entrees, cheeses, side dishes and desserts. Dishes that have seen served this winter include venison sausage, wild boar stew over creamy polenta and squash ravioli.

Appetizers include fritto misto — lightly battered and fried seasonal vegetables; caponata bruschetta — Sicilian relish of eggplant, olives and capers on grilled Tuscan bread; polpette — meatballs made with beef, pork and whole milk ricotta; pesce in saor — baby sole with currants and pine nuts served chilled; and insalata di bistecca — grilled steak over mesclun greens.

Entrees feature pollo al mattone — spicy chicken cooked slowly under a brick; osso bucco — traditional braised veal shank; pork chop milanese — pan-roasted breaded pork chop; and branzino arrostito — roasted black sea bass with citrus aioli.

The atmosphere leans toward the rustic with striped floors, arched passages and iron chandeliers among the features. The white marble bar is particularly attractive. In addition to the bar area, the 125-seat restaurant contains a dining area in the enoteca and another in the trattoria. Situated in the latter is an open kitchen and a 35-seat private dining room that comes with free wireless Internet access, an 8-foot-wide pull-down screen and a private entrance.

Diners in the enoteca can sit on chairs or banquettes. Multiple windows give the room an airy, bright feeling with diners able to see the Sudbury Reservoir from across Rte. 9.

“This is a good place for a business meeting or to impress a date,” said one of my dining companions. “You can wear jeans or a jacket and feel comfortable.”

Prince concurs. “It’s also a place where families can feel at home,” she said. “It’s chic, yet casual — a casual elegance.”

Since the restaurant opened, business has been “incredible,” according to Prince. “Every Friday and Saturday night you need a reservation and lunch is getting busier and busier,” she said. The restaurant started serving lunch last month. She notes that the wine tastings are popular as well.

Although predominantly Italian, Tomasso’s wines hail from all of the world’s wine regions with new ones arriving frequently. It also serves more than 20 wines by the glass.

During lunch, dinner and wine-tasting visits, we tried a wide variety of food at Tomasso and came away impressed with nearly every dish.

The garlic and fennel sausage with marinated peppers ($8) displayed a delicate balance between the garlic and fennel tastes though fennel emerged the winner. The three sausage slices, meanwhile, demonstrated a homemade flavor and consistency. Excess grease and industrial chemicals were nowhere to be found. The sweet red and yellow marinated peppers acted as a nice accompaniment.

The crostini di tonno — olive-oil poached tuna served on grilled bread ($6) — garnered praise for the moistness and freshness of the tuna. “Also, the bread is crunchy but not too hard,” said one of my dining companions. “You don’t have to wrestle with it with your teeth and destroy your dental work.” She also appreciated the light use of olive oil.

The chitarra pomodoro — thin-cut fresh pasta with a simple tomato sauce ($8) — was a delight. The sauce was simple but there can be savoriness in simplicity. Freshness certainly helps. The pasta was cooked perfectly. The dish could have been served warmer, however.

The zuppa di pesce — fish soup ($13) — was another winner. Made with snapper, clams, shrimp, calamari, carrots, onion, tomatoes and fennel in a spicy tomato broth, it was a seafood lover’s dream. “The clams are some of the best I’ve ever had,” said one of my dining companions. “They’re sweet, there’s no grittiness and when you take a bite, the flavor explodes in your mouth.”

For dessert, the chocolate hazelnut torte ($9) arrived topped with fresh whipped cream and powdered sugar. The hazelnut flavor was potent, which was not surprising since there was a hazelnut in every bite.

The free-form tiramisu with homemade ladyfingers ($8) broke the mold by not being made with a mold. “The custard is not as set as in other versions,” said one of my dining companions. “It’s a little runny and a little sweeter than I’m used to.”

During another visit, we sampled the pappardelle with braised rabbit and green olive — wide-cut fresh pasta with locally raised rabbit and green olives ($9). This is a must order. The rabbit was seriously tender and the pasta once again perfectly cooked.

My wife, Beverly, also raved about the blood orange and fennel salad ($6). “It’s very European,” she said. “It’s refreshing, healthy and perfectly dressed. It tastes like springtime.”

The pizza margherita ($8) eschewed the heavy doughiness of many of its brethren. The tomato sauce received a light touch, too. The basil flavor helped boost the flavor.

For an unusual yet delicious wine, try the Lambrusco di Sorbora — a sparkling red. So good.

During another visit, the featured players included a pear salad with spiced walnuts and gorgonzola dolce over field greens ($7.50); insalata verde — arugula with pickled shallots and pecirono sardo ($5); ribollita — Tuscan twice-cooked vegetable soup ($8); gnocchi with braised beef short ribs ($9); risotto with mushrooms and rosemary ($8); and snapper livornese — slow-cooked snapper with tomato, capers and olives ($18).

The dressing on both salads made the culinary highlight reel. Bev also appreciated the fresh pear and generous portion. The soup, packed with cannellini beans, smelled great and tasted even better while the ribs were tasty without being greasy. “It was a nice mix with the gnocchi,” Bev said.

The risotto came loaded with mushrooms and was decidedly creamy, thanks to the chicken broth. Far too often this dish suffers from a terminal case of the blands. Not here.

Our dining companion from Connecticut enjoyed the snapper. “It’s very spicy,” he said, “and I like spicy.” For $18 the portion could have been bigger, however.

All three desserts — the Tuscan chocolate pudding ($6), the almond butter crunch ($9) and tortoni toffee crunch ($9) — were spectacular. The standout, though, was the almond butter crunch. A special, it was one of the most popular desserts at Spago when Bergin was there, according to Thomas Prince. Easy to see why. It’s just flat-out delicious.

Diners should note the dishes are designed with variety in mind. Quality is stressed over quantity. The advantage of such a setup is that diners can sample multiple dishes rather than just an appetizer and an entree. “This way diners can create their own meal,” said Mary Prince.

And whatever you do, save room for dessert.

At the end of the meal, you may not leave Tomasso humming “O Sole Mio,” but your palate will likely be dancing a tarantella.

Service: Exceedingly friendly and accurate. A few minor slips, though. A request for ginger ale yielded 7Up instead. The mistake was quickly corrected. Also, the etiquette police prefer that women be served first. For lunch, we also had to ask for bread. On a positive note, water arrived immediately after we were were seated and was refilled without asking.

Worth it?: Yes, with a caveat. Spending $70 for two for lunch in the suburbs might strike some as expensive. Dinner for three with wine, tax and tip came to $146. That’s less than $50 a person, which is more reasonable considering the food’s overall excellence.

Dinner prices: Antipasti $5 and $6, salads $6-$8, pasta and soups $8-$12, meat and fish dishes $15-$22, pizzas $10-$14, side dishes $4, cheeses $6-$8, dessert $5-$8.

Particulars: The restaurant is open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and for dinner Monday through Saturday, 5:30 to 10 p.m., and Sunday, 4 to 9 p.m. Reservations are accepted and recommended for the weekends. Free parking in the plaza’s lot. Major credit cards accepted. The restaurant is handicapped accessible. Smoking is not allowed.

Miscellaneous: Cocktail receptions are available for 20 to 120 people. Specials change daily.