An evening at Tomasso in Southboro will be a memorable experience

Worcester Telegram & Gazette : Sunday, March 23, 2008

SOUTHBORO — Beginning with imaginative antipasti and ending with fun desserts, dinner at Tomasso Trattoria & Enoteca in Southboro will transform going out for a meal into a memorable experience.

To appreciate the experience, plan to spend some time. We spent a leisurely three hours at Tomasso on a recent Friday night. And be sure to bring a robust credit card because dinner can become pricey. The bill for two came to $169 (that did include wine with the meal and a port over dessert).

Tomasso varies its menu with the season and allows flexibility in ordering so that dinner can be anything from a bowl of pasta to a six-course meal. Notes on the menu and comments from the servers encourage sharing, adding to the adventure.

The restaurant emphasizes freshness and tends toward the extraordinary. The pastas, breads, sausages, sauces and desserts are made in Tomasso’s kitchen. Locally grown ingredients are used when possible.

We knew something was special when we were handed a three-ring binder of drink selections. The 16 pages of wines, mostly Italian, was daunting so I ordered the three-flight tasting option and had three reds of increasing robustness as my meal progressed. I estimated that the three tastes equaled one and a half glasses of wine at any other restaurant. My partner chose a single wine, which came in a 250 ml carafe.

After establishing our wine routine, we launched into the antipasti. The crostini con spinaci ($5), a crisp bread imbued with garlic oil and smothered with spinach and sun-dried tomato, was loaded with flavors. Mozzarella in carozza ($7), deep-fried sandwiches of mozzarella with white anchovies and salsa verde, were light and airy with the salsa flavors front and center.

Other unusual antipasti selections include affettati misti ($16), a selection of cured meats; insalata di polpo ($7), poached octopus; and melanzane con pepperoni ($6), Italian eggplant with peppers.

The primi or pasta course was anything but traditional and the portions were sized to leave room for the courses to follow. My choice was the garganelli ($13), braised rabbit, radicchio and almonds tossed with rigatoni-like pasta. It was a rare treat.

The other pasta that made it to our table was raviolo con uovo ($12), one large ravioli filled with mascarpone cheese, black truffles and egg yolk. My partner commented that she would never order ravioli at another restaurant because it could never measure up. After a few sample nibbles, I agreed.

Other pasta dishes range from $10 to $12 and include pasta with a meat sauce, with braised pork, with mussels and in a bean soup. Entrée portions of pasta are available.

For the main event, about an hour and a half into the experience, I selected the maiale, a slow-roasted heritage pork rib marinated with fennel pollen and lemon zest topped with Seckel pear halves ($25). I was forewarned that the heritage bred pork would be fatty, but that proved desirable. The meat was unlike any pork I had ever had — pink, juicy, delightful in texture and bursting with a pleasant gaminess. It was a far cry from “the other white meat.”

My partner nearly took flight with the quaglie ($23), grilled marinated quail on skewers with a fig compote and toasted walnuts. The diminutive bird was juicy and grilled to a golden brown. The sublime texture was heightened with the crunch of walnuts.

We saved for another time the bistecca ($29), a Delmonico steak; red snapper rosso ($25); grilled swordfish ($26); and a venison stew ($24). Vegetable sides were $4 each and we choose the finocchio (roasted fennel) and rapini, sautéed broccoli rabe with garlic and crushed red pepper. Nothing commonplace about these vegetables.

I couldn’t say no to a rosemary and olive cake with basil gelato. When will I ever again find that combination? The cupcake-size dessert was remarkable in its flavors and lack of cloying sweetness. The basil in the gelato was surprisingly refreshing. With a cup of expertly prepared cappuccino, the dessert created a perfect conclusion to a mélange of flavors, textures and colors that was our meal.

My partner luxuriated in the gianduja semifreddo, a frozen chocolate and hazelnut mousse topped with a dollop of tuille. Sadly, we left the tiramisù with mascarpone cheese ($8) and the budino di datteri, a moist pudding of Medjul dates and caramelized toffee ($7), for another time.

While the food was a joy, the ancillary experiences were less so. Tomasso attempts to capture the essence of Tuscany, or how Americans living in New England perceive Tuscany. The furnishings reflect the Tuscany connection, but an abundance of hard surfaces, open spaces and a kitchen that is exposed to the dining room created a constant thrum that frequently interrupted table talk.

As the restaurant filled, the dining areas tended to get noisy with conversation. Tables were packed close together thus negating a quiet, romantic dinner for two.

The service, on the other hand was outstanding. We felt pampered with water bearers, food servers and fresh utensils and plates at every course. The hostess brought brown sugar and disks of chocolate for my cappuccino. Sarah, our guide, checked in and made suggestions at every course in addition to taking orders.

Despite the distractions of the room, we plan to return to Tomasso, probably with a group, to share the fun and adventure.

– By Bill Clapper Telegram & Gazette Reviewer