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Trattoria Toscana - not impressed

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Based on several rec's found here of Trattoria Toscana, three of us tried it out tonight. I've spent a considerable amount of time in Italy, and know the food well. Versus what I know of Tuscan food, this trattoria was not particularly Tuscan. Secondly, I would not recommend it to Italian foodies, or those who are accustomed to and seek out actual Italian cooking. If this trattoria represents the upper echelon of trattoria-style Italian joints in Boston, then Boston is a sad place for Italian food lovers.

The cheese selection on the antipasto misto was parmesan, pecorino, and gorgonzola. Not exactly exciting, and the waiter didn't know which type of pecorino they served (hello, toscano?). My partner got the rucola salad, which was the one thing that made my tongue happy, considering the difficulty of finding rucola where I live (Western Mass).

The primi were disappointing as hell. My partner got penne alla carrettiera, which means "cart driver's pasta" and as such does not refer to any particular ingredient list, except that with such a name you expect it to be rustic. At Trattoria Toscana is a tomato sauce with pancetta, chili pepper, and garlic. Sound familiar? It's basically a spiced up amatriciana, which is a Lazio dish and has nothing in common with Tuscan food. I ordered the ravioli with sausage and rapini. Huge disappointment. Instead of big, plump ravioli stuffed with the sausage and rapini, I got what appeared to be your typical frozen ravioli, filled with ricotta cheese of all things, and with the sausage and rapini on top. Ricotta cheese wasn't even mentioned on the menu (if it were, I wouldn't have ordered it - ricotta is an Italian-American cop-out filling). And again, ricotta does not feature in Tuscan food. Lastly, our friend ordered the vegetable risotto, which tasted to me like nacho cheese (I kid you not). Risotto - not particularly Tuscan either.

The tiramisu was also terrible, it was clearly made in advance and frozen - it had yet to thaw completely and was icy. That's assuming they make it in house, which like the ravioli, I'm not so sure.

In sum, this "Tuscan" trattoria is not Tuscan at all, and the food was not up to par.

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  1. Thanks for the detailed report!

    I have a different take on Trattoria Toscana that I hope suggests your single experience there may not be representative. While I agree it's not purely Tuscan, I think it comes the closest to actual Tuscan cuisine of any restaurant in Greater Boston, doing many dishes exactly as I remember them at modest restaurants in Tuscany. It's worth noting that he's adapting Tuscan cuisine to locally available ingredients and pasta-mad American tastes, hence a number of pasta dishes and risotti that wander afield of Tuscany (which isn't exactly known for pasta).

    That penne alla carretierre is a good example: not explicitly Tuscan, but very much a simple, canonical Italian recipe ("trucker's pasta" is probably closer in meaning than your literal translation -- Marcella Hazan has a recipe that seems very close to TT's), and done here exactly like I remember it at a crappy little (wonderful) roadside place somewhere outside of Montepulciano. There are a couple of other pasta dishes that I think are also superb: rigatoni alla norcina (with sausage and cream), and pasta buongustaio (I think a kind of a gussied up pesto with pancetta).

    I think the chef gets certain Tuscan dishes exactly as I remember them at inexpensive little places in more rural corners of Tuscany: his very simple antipasto with excellent sopressata, great soups (ribollita, passato, pappa al pomodoro), crostini di fegato, tripa Florentina, a very simply grilled pork roast with fennel. Those dishes seem dead-authentic, from what I in my limited experience can tell.

    More important to me than some debatable notion of authenticity is how truly this chef/owner seems to capture the spirit of a trattoria, a rare thing in the States. It's an open-kitchen neighborhood place first of all (no reservations or parking make it tough as a destination restaurant); the decor is nothing to write home about; the service is well-meaning but not particularly sophisticated; he keeps his cuisine fairly simple and his prices low (it doesn't feel like a spurge to have dinner here on a weeknight); and he's always, always there cooking. I agree that the desserts and cheese plate are weak, and I wish his house red was still $18 a carafe instead of $25 (I order by the bottle now), but I still find it one of my very favorite restaurants in Boston at any price point.

    9 Replies
    1. re: MC Slim JB

      I will say that the chef was quite nice and has an interesting story to tell re: his life, what put him in Italy, and how he came here.

      1. re: MC Slim JB

        As a rule, I tend to agree with MC Slim JB's assessments, but I'm particularly impressed by his nuanced reply above.

        Setting aside the notion of authenticity (which, while generally an admirable trait in a restaurant, I think we chowhounds can run the risk of worshiping as a false god), I don't think Trattoria Toscana works especially well as a destination restaurant. To re-post what I wrote about it in the really interesting "Chowhype" thread (http://www.chowhound.com/topics/519053 ) a few weeks ago:

        ---

        Personally, I adore this place because it's such a rarity in the States, a real neighborhood Tuscan restaurant, the kind of storefront you might find in a non-touristy, middle class neighborhood in Florence. The food is essentially a (much) better version of the everyday-style stuff I might cook at home on a given night.

        But if you're waiting for 45 minutes or longer [or driving all the way across the state], expectations are almost necessarily going to change. Now it's dinner as an event, an arena where Trattoria Toscana can't really compete (nor does it try).

        That said, if I'm anywhere nearby on a Wednedsay in the early evening, I can't think of too many places I'd rather wind up for a weeknight dinner out. And for that matter, in terms of meeting my expectations, I also think it trounces most of the event restaurants around town as well.

        1. re: finlero

          Bingo. If I'm going to a show or a concert or a film at the MFA, there is no place in the neighborhood I would rather eat than Trattoria Toscana. If I was sitting here at home thinking, "Gee, I don't wanna cook tonight, let's go have dinner out," would I make the (short and straightforward) trip from Allston to the Fenway to eat there? Nah, probably not.

        2. re: MC Slim JB

          Sopressata is Calabrese, no? IIRC Tuscan salami tends to be less spicy.

          1. re: limster

            Soppressata is not specifically calabrese. There is a Tuscan soppressata that is made by taking random pork bits (largely considered undesirable by themselves), which are molded together and cured. Soppressata also seems to be somewhat syonymous for coppa, which can be an entirely different product (for instance, coppa piacentina which is a deliciously delicate-sweet salumi, or its southern cousin, capocollo calabrese). I imagine soppressata may used to refer to "coppa di testa" which is a headcheese variant which is popular in Emilia-Romagna.

            The soppressata we know in the US the southern variety and is more like a typical Italian cured sausage. Calabrese soppressata tends to be spicier, a hallmark of calabrese cooking.

            1. re: limster

              Judging from one memorable little saumeria that I visited in the center of Greve (Google is miraculous: I looked it up, it's called Antica Macelleria Falorni), there are scores of kinds of Tuscan salami of varying spicings, fat content, add-ins (like mushrooms and truffles), degrees of hotness, etc.; it also carried wild-board prosciutto and some salumi in styles that weren't especially Tuscan (I couldn't tell you if they were made locally or "imported").

              TT's inclusion of sopressata on its antipasto plate (along with one or two kinds of salami, typically) is likely a reflection of the chef offering something good and available to him (or just something he likes) as opposed to it being explicitly Tuscan (though maybe there's a Tuscan sopressata -- I don't really know).

              I do love that little plate: there's something so soothing and simple about a few slices of salumi, some olives and roasted red peppers, a bit of cheese, that little pile of dressed greens he puts on a lot of plates.

              1. re: MC Slim JB

                In case you're curious about Tuscan soppressata, here's a link with a picture of it (it isn't pretty)

                http://www.agraria.org/prodottitipici...

                The text roughly translates to: "Tuscan soprassata is made from the head, tongue, and rinds cooked in water. You chop the meat and mix it together with salt, pepper, spices, garlic, rosemary, lemon and orange rinds. This gets stuffed into a tube and cooled. The color varies from pink to grey depending on what ingredients [parts of the pig, I presume] you use."

                1. re: fame da lupo

                  Fascinating stuff! I don't recall seeing anything that looked quite as head-cheese-y as that over there.

                  1. re: fame da lupo

                    What do you mean, it isn't pretty? That thing is GORGEOUS!

            2. Thanks for this interesting post. I've long been a fan of TT, but my last visit there wasn't nearly as transcendent as previous times. As you point out, not all of the dishes or ingredients are actually Tuscan, but what I most appreciate in TT is its simplicity, which I think is truly Tuscan in spirit.

              Recently, I've very much enjoyed their grilled steak with rucola and Parmesan salad as well as their baked potatoes. Chicken liver or spinach and sausage crostini are also highlights for me.

              1 Reply
              1. re: gini

                I've been to TT a few times and enjoyed it, but, I was disappointed in my last visit too. I loved the antipasto, it was a lovely start for the meal. But, I tried the grilled pork chop and was disappointed - it was two very thin chops - seemed like one normal size chop split - and it was overcooked. My dc had the grilled steak with balsamic and was underwhelmed. However - the pastas at the table next to us looked & smelled great, and that's what I've enjoyed in the past, so next time, I'll stick to them.

              2. We visited over the weekend, had a lovely meal and left very happy. I'm eating light these days (down 23 lbs so far) so we shared a Bruschetteria and followed it with two pasta dishes -- the Pappardelle al Ragu Toscano and the cod ragu.

                While we were there we heard lots of happy comments from other folks in the room. I don't have MC Slim JB's or your Tuscan expertise to call upon but I do know that I enjoy having TT in my regular restaurant rotation.

                Photos at this link

                http://www.bostonzest.com/2008/05/tra...

                1. Sorry that your experience was poor especially driving in from Western Mass. You seem knowledgable on the Italian food scene in New England and would welcome suggestions of places that you prefer. My one experience at TT was very positive. We asked about the ravioli prior to ordering to confirm that it was cheese ravioli. One of our DC ordered this and was pleased with it. My papardelle bolognese was one of the better pasta dishes i've had in the US and very reasonably priced. My tastes of the aforementioned ravioli and the spaghetti with cod were both fine. RE your penne dish, I recall a spaghetti dish in Florence in the mid 1970s called Fioccoraia (sp?) that sounds much like your dish. I liked it enough to order it twice. It may have been a spiced up amatriciana but it was certainly a local specialty at the time.

                  8 Replies
                  1. re: gourmaniac

                    MC: I'm not interested in authenticity, but if a place names itself after a certain region I'd like to find a menu that reflects the region's tastes. Tuscan food tends to rusticity, with a focus on vegetables, beans, lentils, etc. I was disappointed to not find such a focus in their menu - instead it is a typical pan-Italian restaurant.

                    Gini: It's true that their menu contains a certain simplicity, but that's a trait common to all of Italian cooking, not just Tuscany.

                    Bostonzest: I was surprised that a "tuscan ragu" did not feature boar, which is the staple ragu meat in Tuscany. If I had known my ravioli would be tiny, perhaps not from scratch, and filled with ricotta, the ragu would have been my next choice.

                    Gourmaniac: I actually have little experience with the Italian food scene in NE because it tends to be dominated by Ital-American joints, which I avoid. I saw the positive press here for Toscana, calling it authentic and old world, and that got me pretty excited - enough that I left my kitchen, which is typically where I consume Italian food. Toscana has captured the trattoria environment, but not Tuscan cooking. They are closer to real Italian than the myriad red-sauce joints that specialize in glops of mozza and garlic overkill, but that said, Trattoria Toscana does not compare favorably to similar places I've been in New York or Philly.

                    My actual expertise is in Emilian cooking, but I can say that there are variations all over Italy on what Toscana calls "alla carrettiera" and in Italy they go by a wide variety of names. There are staples like arrabiata (tomato, chili, garlic) and amatriciana (tomato, pancetta, chili and garlic optional). Variations from these staples tend to get called whatever suits the fancy of the chef/owner.

                    That said, pastas that include chili and pancetta tend to be southern in origin. In Tuscan trattorie that focus on Tuscan food, these are ingredients that are unlikely to be found. I think arrabiata tends to be on menus across Italy because it's a vegetarian option and has a relatively wide-appeal. It is also a testament to Italy's cultural unification, around food anyway.

                    1. re: fame da lupo

                      For someone who isn't interested in authenticity, it sure seems like a lot of your complaints are based on the idea of "you wouldn't find that in a REAL Truscan trattoria."

                      1. re: BarmyFotheringayPhipps

                        I accept that there is no well-defined essense of what is Tuscan food (or any food for that matter). As noted above, one finds a mixed-up hybrid of ingredients and traditions wherever one goes in Italy. Because of this, finding chili pepper in a dish in Tuscany isn't surprising at all. Determining authenticity is difficult, perhaps too difficult for the word to be useful in this setting.

                        With that said, there are preparations and ingredients more and less common to particular regions, and to my disappointment TT did not reflect that in their presentation of "Tuscan" cooking.

                        1. re: BarmyFotheringayPhipps

                          I love the taste of their food and the price points. Debating authentic names and ingredients given the location of the place is unfair to the hard work and skill of the chef. Boston is NOT NY or Montreal or Paris or ( ) area so cut the guy a little slack. It just sounds like you're angry for being lead astray but the CH'ers...

                          1. re: Sal Monella

                            Not angry, just disappointed. Obviously Boston is not any other place. It's Boston. But it being Boston does not preclude comparisons with places in other cities. And being in Boston does not mean we should cut any restaurants "slack" - being in any particular geographic space should not reflect on the food, all other things being equal.

                        2. re: fame da lupo

                          I am far from an expert on Italian food, much less specialties of the Tuscan region, but I thought the sausage and rapini dish was usually served with orecchiette or another short pasta? I don't think I have ever seen those ingredients stuffed into ravioli. I could be very wrong and I would like to try them stuffed in ravioli but I am just not familar with that prep.

                          1. re: Dax

                            This would make sense since rapini/rabe is more of a southern ingredient, and orecchiette is a Puglian pasta. Orecchiette + sausage + a green is a typical pasta.

                            1. re: Dax

                              Casoncelli , a ravioli specialty from Bergamo(and maybe some other surrounding areas) is typically filled with sausage, sage and pancetta. That's just one example I can think of. I haven't seen any around here though. I wish the dollar were better against the euro, it would make having those delicious eats a lot easier(on the pocket, travelwise).

                        3. Sorry you didn't enjoy your meal. My own experiences at TT are quite different from your recent one. I don't speak from a deep knowledge of Tuscan cuisine, but TT is one of my favorite Boston-area restaurants. The gnocci with gorgonzola sauce and the sausage-mascarpone pasta are fabulous, as is the (winter menu?) mushroom risotto. My husband also really enjoys the steak with gorgonzola sauce, which has always been cooked medium-rare as ordered. I usually can't make it past the pastas to order an entree.

                          We have also had genuinely warm, gracious service, and find the staff's attitude king of contagious. Humble, delicious food served with pleasant attitude in an inviting environment.

                          1. what do you like in New York? There's so much to choose from: L'impero and the upscale end, Arthur Avenue and the red sauce/bronx end? So much food, so little time! local board members might have good suggestions if they know what pleases you.

                            11 Replies
                            1. re: teezeetoo

                              I enjoy Arthur Ave for the ambiance, if not the restaurants. I think Boston's North End is perhaps the most Italian-esque and well preserved little Italy in the US. But most of the restaurants in the N. End seem feature baked ziti rather than tortellini in brodo, if you get my drift. I do not like redsauce, Ital-American.

                              I tend to prefer trattoria-like environments, more like Cacio e Pepe than Po. I can't afford Babbo except on my birthday when my SO is buying. I want my servers to be speaking Italian and know the difference between carbonara and amatriciana. I prefer places that do a particular style rather than a pan-xxx b/c typicaly those that specialize put out better and more interesting food.

                              If there's anything akin to this in Boston, I would be very happy to receive the news!

                              1. re: fame da lupo

                                I'm curious: Have you been to Gran Gusto? I was there last night, speaking Italian with my server in fact, eating Napoli-style pizza. The menu is mostly Southern Coast focused.

                                1. re: gini

                                  I've not been, but thank you very much for the rec, I just read up on GG here and at Yelp and it seems like a worthy next meal in Boston! I get excited when I read about pizzaioli napoletani and buffalo mozzarella.

                                2. re: fame da lupo

                                  Perhaps I am reading this wrong, but are you saying there are no red sauces in Italian (vs. Italian-American) cuisine? (Yes, I realize that Italian cuisine is divided into distinct regional styles)

                                  While I understand and agree with wanting servers that understand food, I think wanting servers that speak Italian in the USA is asking for a bit much. Good help is hard to find and keep in the industry as it is.

                                  1. re: kallis33

                                    Maybe calling a place a "red sauce" joint isn't in the vernacular in New England? It basically refers to the average Ital-American place that focuses on spaghetti and meatballs, fra diavolo, ziti, marinara, etc - e.g. places whose menus are dominated by tomato sauces. The term doesn't mean that there are no "red sauces" in Italian cooking, which of course there are.

                                    Italian speaking servers is a cherry on top, really. It isn't that hard to find in NYC, I dunno about Boston though.

                                    1. re: fame da lupo

                                      "Italian speaking servers ... isn't that hard to find in NYC"

                                      What rubbish.

                                      1. re: Alcachofa

                                        Perhaps rubbish to you, but do you try speaking Italian with your waiters? Do you seek out small places run by Italians?

                                        1. re: fame da lupo

                                          I seek out places where the food is good, regardless of who made it or where the waiters were born.

                                          1. re: Alcachofa

                                            Well, to be fair, although I naturally agree with this statement (why would I hang out on this board if I didn't?), I would say that there is still some degree of correlation between staff ethnicity and the quality of a given ethnic eatery.

                                            Again, I'm very leery of automatically conflating authenticity and deliciousness, but realistically, more often than not, the two move in proportion.

                                            Gran Gusto is a case in point. The owners are Italian, lots of Italian is spoken in the dining room (staff and clientele alike), and the food (especially the pizza) tastes both authentic and delicious to me.

                                            (Then again, I would say the same about Trattoria Toscana. Waitstaff aside, I always hear as much Italian as English being spoken at the tables, and I think the fegatini crostini and the risotto ai porcini are both phenomenal.)

                                            Totally possible to be authentic and crappy. Totally possible to be inauthentic and delicious. Totally possible to be authentic without being the "right" ethnicity. But they often correlate.

                                            1. re: finlero

                                              This is a really well-worn topic on Chowhound: the elusive pursuit of authenticity. Can something be authentically Sicilian-American, like Vinny's at Night, which I think is very tasty for what it is?

                                              I guess I don't have an inherent bias toward the authentic, but it does make me feel better when I go to lunch at Sichuan Gourmet in Billerica and am the only person without any Chinese ancestry in the room (patrons and staff).

                                              I remember my first visit to Trattoria Toscana the month it opened -- I wrote about it in my first full-length review of a single restaurant, for Boston's Weekly Dig -- and how I was heartened to hear the owner chatting with a huge party in Italian there. Not essential, but it usually strikes me as a good sign.

                                              Then again, owner Nick what's-his-name from Strega in the North End is always nattering in Italian, and his restaurant couldn't be any phonier.

                                  2. re: fame da lupo

                                    Fame, you're tiring me out a little with your standards, but to humor you I'll recommend Trattoria Pulcinella at Huron and Concord in Cambridge. I think the cooks are Central American now, but at least the owner and waiters speak Italian. I don't recall seeing many tomatoes there.

                                    Also, try Benatti in Inman Square but go quick becuase it's probably going to change hands soon. It's Emilian, though perhaps not Emilian enough because, well, it's near Somerville and the angle of light just ain't the same.

                                3. OK,OK guys, be nice. It's a little naive to expect the food here to be the same as it is in Tuscany because the raw ingredients and the economics of running a restaurant are different, and it's easy to adapt a traditional recipe or menu to circumstance because most patrons here will not notice the difference. Italy is regional, Italians are incredibly traditional when it comes to food, and will argue about the precise way to make ragu, etc. So fame is doing just that, and while perhaps he shouldn't expect things to be the same here as they are there, it's this fierce loyalty to traditional taste that makes us love Italian food.
                                  I lived in Florence for several years, I visit my parents in Piedmont every year, but I hardly ever dine at Italian restaurants here because the food never tastes the same, and I can do better at home.
                                  Two more points: nearly every restaurant in a particular region will have the same menu, and that gets a bit tiresome ("not gnocchi alla bava again!"), and you can be in the middle of nowhere in Italy and still find excellent restaurants with serious pretentions, to rival anything we have here, because all Italians take their food so very, very seriously.

                                  3 Replies
                                  1. re: cassis

                                    Thanks Cassis, I'm not sure where the defensiveness (borderline hostility?) comes from - I can understand people defending their favorite restaurants, but to criticize someone's "standards" seems a bit over the top. Cannot we have different standards and be fine with that? I realize my standards are high. They're high for a reason - if I'm going to go out for Italian food, I want it to resemble the delicious flavors that I know from Italy. Otherwise, as you said, I'll happily stay at home and make it myself. If there's only one restaurant in Mass that meets my standards, so be it. It'd be nice to find that place.

                                    Lastly, better alla bava than the even more ubiquitous alla gorgonzola!

                                    1. re: fame da lupo

                                      I'm still trying to figure out your tastes - what do you think of Prezza?

                                      1. re: fame da lupo

                                        Unfortunately, this type of behavior occurs more than one board, and has been discussed before.... http://www.chowhound.com/topics/508739

                                        We should head to the site talk board if we want to talk more about this.

                                    2. Just a quick note that the 'does authenticity matter' debate, while much beloved of Chowhounds, is off topic for the regional boards. If you'd like to continue the general discussion on authenticity and whether Italian waiters make for better Italian restaurants, please start a new thread on the General Topics board. Of course, if you've got specific Boston recommendations for fame da lupo, or specific comments on Trattoria Toscana, please post them here.