Food stands out location doesn't

Restaurant: New Tuscany Grill can serve spectacular dishes, but it may have to struggle to get noticed.

July 19, 1998|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

I worry about the Tuscany Grill, the new Italian restaurant in Timonium. I'd like to think its very good food will overcome its disadvantages, but I'm mildly pessimistic.

Its main disadvantage is location. The Tuscany Grill opened where Milano's used to be - just south of Romano's Macaroni Grill, a popular chain eatery. The two have very little in common except that they are both Italian and both grills, but that's not immediately obvious.

Don't let the Tuscany Grill's exterior fool you. It looks like any one of those pleasant but unmemorable Italian eating places set along a busy highway. The interior doesn't give you much of a clue either. Unlike the chic dining room of Sotto Sopra, its parent restaurant in downtown Baltimore, the Tuscany Grill's decor is nice enough but not at all striking. And with no carpet, draperies or even tablecloths to absorb sound, it can get deafeningly noisy. People dress casually here, sometimes in shorts or jeans, and the service can be equally casual.

The food, however, is often quite elegant. Tuscany Grill has a well-conceived menu of traditional dishes produced with imagination and verve. Bruschetta, for instance, started with crisp toasts; and each topping was more appealing than the last: fresh tomatoes; a tangy olive spread; smooth, savory bean puree.

Mussels here seem fresher and more grit-free than most, their wine and chopped fresh tomato sauce a little more flavorful. A green salad, elegant in its simplicity, sported summer tomatoes, Belgian endive and a fine balsamic dressing.

Our most spectacular first course was a huge crab cake, worthy of any Chesapeake Bay cook, on a bed of fruity slaw. The plate was decorated prettily with a piping of fresh tomato sauce and dots of tartar sauce. Have this with the restaurant's good focaccia and a glass of wine, and you won't need anything else.

The Tuscany Grill's buttery risotto is at once creamy, dense and just slightly chewy - a perfect foil for fat shrimp and tiny, tender-crisp asparagus spears. Juicy charred chicken breasts were further enhanced by their bed of spinach sauteed with garlic and golden raisins. Strips of "oven cured" (a k a sun-dried) tomatoes added colorful contrast.

The fish of the day, mahi mahi, was wonderfully fresh and moist; its lentil salad, the perfect summer accompaniment. And I loved a quartet of rib lamb chops bathed in a sophisticated sauce of olive oil, chopped fresh parsley and garlic. (The chops, however, weren't pink as ordered.) They came with a swirl of whipped potatoes and sauteed vegetables, including bell peppers, snow peas and onions. Not exactly a light summer meal, but no one seemed to mind.

The Tuscany Grill's desserts are all homemade. Some work, some don't. Hazelnut gelato most definitely did; so, too, the tartufo with its chocolate mousse-like filling. But a chocolate mousse cake contained no chocolate mousse, and was somewhat gummy besides. As for the fresh fruit: Strawberries and blueberries swam in a tasteless zabaglione, as if the kitchen had forgotten the Marsala that night.

TUSCANY GRILL

Food: *** 1/2

Service: ** 1/2

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Where: 2047 York Road, Timonium

Hours: Open for lunch Monday through Friday, for dinner nightly

Prices: Appetizers, $6.25-$9.25; main courses, $9.95-$21. Major credit cards.

Call: 410-252-3353

Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

Pub Date: 7/19/98

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