Trattoria Tosca in Linden Hills
If restaurants were trains, think of Trattoria Tosca as the Little Engine That Could. Since Harvey McLain, who also owns the adjacent Turtle Bread bakery, opened this Linden Hills restaurant two years ago, patrons have witnessed a revolving door of chefs pass through its Italian kitchen — Landon Schoenefeld, now of HauteDish, who left before its official launch; Adam Vickerman, now executive chef at sister restaurant Cafe Levain; and Ryan Zander, who departed for Duluth’s JJ Astor Restaurant after just a few months. But now under the leadership of chef Ian Gray, Tosca’s longest-serving head chef with 11 months on the job, the cozy and comfortable neighborhood spot has settled into a groove and boasts a menu that should draw in fastidious diners from the greater metro area.
Should is the key word here, because on several recent visits, despite the top-notch food coming from Gray’s kitchen, Tosca’s dining room wasn’t nearly as full as its menu merits. This is a shame, considering most of the dishes sampled rivaled the quality at Broders’ Pasta Bar and Parma 8200. Yes, it’s already April, but let’s make a collective resolution as food lovers in 2011 to put Trattoria Tosca on our must-go-there-now lists.
Because when you go, you’ll get to experience one of the rarest dishes in fine dining — the properly dressed salad. Whereas so many restaurants — good restaurants, not just the Olive Garden and company — drown their salads in vinaigrette, Tosca offers three that barely glisten with dressing but still pack the necessary flavor punch to make the vegetables dance. The green salad ($7, lower right), featuring goat cheese-topped dates and almonds, benefits from a careful drizzle of sherry vinaigrette, which ties together the crunch of the nuts with the sweetness of the dates. The vegetable salad ($8, upper left) offers the promise of a long-awaited spring with its fresh-tasting combination of fennel, celery root, frisee, red onion, and caraway vinaigrette, as does the kumquat salad ($7, upper right) with hazelnuts and aged goat cheese. Also drawing raves was the beet carpaccio ($9, lower left), with a sprinkling of sea salt balancing the sweetness of the tender spheres of blushy beet, the tang of the pickled onions, the creaminess of the avocado, the crunch of the arugula, and the soft bite of the pecorino.
The justified restraint in dressing carries over to Tosca’s pasta dishes, available as half and full orders. When alfredo sauce is listed as an ingredient, many times diners can expect a platter full of noodles swimming in gloppy sauce, which makes the tagliatelle with chicken confit ($8 / $15) even more of a revelation. With just enough sauce swirled into the pasta to coat each strand and a sprinkle of buttery breadcrumbs, the dish is just rich enough to make you swoon but light enough that you won’t feel like you ate a brick after your plate is whisked away. The arugula fettuccini ($6 / $11) barely sports a sauce — just a splash of fruity olive oil, which nicely offsets the bits of green dotted throughout the pasta and the generous shake of black pepper and grana padano atop it. The spice of the tomato sauce that accompanies the green orechetti ($9 / $16, above) would overwhelm the palate if not for the cooling dollops of lemon mascarpone that slowly melt into the bowl and add a luxuriousness to a vegetable-driven dish.
Gray’s understanding of flavor balance may be best demonstrated in the ham hock ravioli ($10 / $18), which uses a sweet but not syrupy port reduction to bring together the saltiness of the ham and the juiciness of the mission figs.
The secondi and contorni also provide notable bites. The mild seared striped bass ($27) is the perfect foil to the zesty harissa dressing, and the avocado, blood orange, and radish salad added a welcome burst of citrusy crunch to the plate. The short rib ($20, above) delivers on its promise of fork-tenderness, but it needs a pinch more salt and pepper to rally a strong finish, and its bed of mushroom risotto lacks the creaminess that turns plain old rice into something spectacular.
But whatever disappointment the risotto brings is quickly forgotten once you dig into the bowl of Brussels sprouts ($6 for a half order, $9 for full), which become addicting after the first bite with their tantalizing coating of garlic, shallots, and balsamic vinegar. The fingerling potatoes ($5 / $9) boost their creamy factor with a dive into the crÃ¨me fraiche sauce, and the mushrooms ($7 / $10) taste even more earthy with a sprinkle of truffles.
The dessert menu’s brevity — just four dishes — still offers enough for everyone’s preference, whether it be chocolately, fruity, or carb-centric. With its deep cocoa flavor and silky texture, the amaretto chocolate custard ($8) makes you forget that Jell-O pudding cups even exist. The whipped cream may seem superfluous on paper, but you’ll want to swirl it into the chocolate cream and savor every spoonful. The lemon crÃ¨me brÃ»lÃ©e mirrored its chocolate companion’s smoothness, though it could have benefited from a crunchier caramelized shell, and the accompanying shortbread cookie was utterly forgettable. Cinnamon banana bread pudding ($7) stuffed so much fruit and nuts into its dense folds that it could have passed for a fruit kugel. But the parsnip cake (below) presents the biggest surprise, with the carrot’s paler cousin succeeding in a fluffy cake layered with sweet cream and coconut.
The reasonably priced wine list features varieties from around the world, favoring Italy, of course, but also remembering American, Argentinian, French, and New Zealand vinos. Be sure to inquire about the daily specials offered by the glass and bottle. The viognier and nivuro recently sampled were immensely enjoyable, and the server admirably described both wines to a T. It’s easy to be intimidated by a wine list, but with such expertise to guide you to wines that meet your preferences, Tosca takes much of the guess work out of the drink menu. Such attentive service seems to be rule rather than the exception here, and when one order for coffee had to go unfilled due to an unexplained spat with the folks at Turtle Bread next door, the server graciously offered an espresso gratis.
Trattoria Tosca may not have had the smoothest start in the restaurant business, but it certainly has hit its stride with craveable meals and a friendly atmosphere that welcomes young families, couples on Saturday night dates, and everyone else who comes through the door. But it shouldn’t just be your second choice whenever the wait is too long at Broders’. Tosca deserves a visit on its own merits, and you’ll find plenty of reasons to turn that initial meal into the first of many.
BEST BET: Start with the beet carpaccio ($9), order a full serving of the tagliatelle with chicken confit ($15), add a side of Brussels sprouts ($9), and finish with the amaretto chocolate custard ($8).
Italian in Linden Hills, Minneapolis
3415 West 44th St
Minneapolis, MN 55410
CHEF / OWNER: Ian Gray / Harvey McLain
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED: Yes / No
BAR: Beer and wine
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No
ENTREE PRICE: $11-24