Tuscan heart

Worcester Magazine : March 2, 2005

Tucked into a corner of The Crossings, a relatively new retail complex on Rte. 9 in Southboro, Tomasso’s Trattoria could be described as Tuscan: wide swaths of dark rust, tiles and plush leather booths.

Upon entering, the sleek enotecca, or wine bar, is laid out before you. We were whisked toward a roomy corner booth at the end of the room. From the other side, the chefs can be seen at work in the partially open kitchen.

Chef Tony Bettencourt came to Tomasso’s with an impressive resume, having earned the Julia Child Award for excellence while at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. While he was in the kitchen at Upstairs on the Square in Cambridge, that restaurant was recognized by top cuisine magazines.

If you have not been introduced to a genuine Italian menu, you might be a bit nonplussed. Take your time; a meal is an event to be enjoyed and shared and is not all about tomato sauce, pasta and cheese. The menu is like a palate of colors; a large group may call for a dab of each. A sampling better suits a dinner for two.

We each selected a quartino of wine — your choice of 250, 500 or 1,000 milliliters, ranging from $6.50 to $18.25. We each chose the small, 250 ml carafe, enough for one and a half to two glasses. White Favorita for me and merlot Togliano for my husband.

The menu begins with antipasti ($3-$8): carne, misti and pesce. With a taste of the fresh insalate ($5-$7.50), I was transported to a villa in the hills of the Veneto. You won’t see blood orange and fennel salad (my choice) or cannellini bean salad with olive oil-poached tuna on many of the Shrewsbury Street menus. Each bite of soft, dark, red blood orange section burst with sweetness against the bitter crunch of white fennel.

From the carne list, we ordered the garlic and fennel sausage with sweet peppers and onions and from the misti we chose the arancini, “little oranges of fontina filled saffron risotto.” The meaty sausages, cut in half lengthwise, were not as flavor-packed as I had hoped, but were well complemented by the peppers and onions. Little risotto oranges were exactly what the arancini looked like. The small pocket of hot, creamy fontina cheese was a nice contrast to the arancini’s bumpy, deep-fried outer texture.

We moved to primi piatti ($7-$11), secondi piatti ($17-$21) and contorni ($4). Contorni are the vegetable side dishes to accompany the first and second course dishes. The primi piatti are pasta dishes, homemade at Tomasso’s.

I chose the most adventurous primi piatti: pappardelle with braised rabbit and green olive, one of Tomasso’s most popular dishes. It arrived in a bowl, like soup with long, wide ribbons of pasta. The chunks of rabbit tasted like — what else? — chicken; dark meat, to be exact. The green olives added a welcome tang.

The bistecca Toscana, “grilled local steak with salt, pepper and extra virgin olive oil” and patate alla salvia, “oven roasted potatoes and sage” were perfect for my meat-and-potatoes husband. The more-than-two-inch cut of steak was served nestled next to a bed of fresh arugala. It was tender, moist and red inside, the simple seasonings added just enough to mingle with the beef’s native flavor. Sage gave the large, tender slices of potato the taste of an Italian garden.

Next, we were looking forward to tasting the wares of Tomasso’s “own celebrity pastry chef and cookbook author,” Mary Bergin. Bergin’s accomplishments are too numerous to mention here (Bios and menus are on www.tomassotrattoria.com/). The dolci, or desserts, range from $5 to $9.

The presentation of each treat we ordered was inventive and unexpected. My husband ordered tiramisu, the staple of any Italian dolci menu. I selected the crunchy toffee tortoni. Our server set a plate before my husband. On it was a tall, narrow frosted glass and a spoon. I was served his tiramisu, so we switched.

The three-inch round glass contained a mildly flavored mousse topped with a sprinkling of toffee pieces. The tiramisu consisted of several slices of soft, cakey ladyfingers, covered with sharp, espresso flavored custard and topped with tiny but thick flakes of chocolate. We tasted each and switched back. Perhaps our server knew intuitively that I would better appreciate the smooth confection with a kick, while my mate preferred the more subtle character of the tortoni.

With the pot of loose-brew ancient Sevan-blend herbal tea, our Tuscan trip was at an end. Our appetites and sensibilities were well sated, all for $105.26 before tip. At 15 miles outside of Worcester, you can visit Italy without using your frequent-flier miles.