Tosca Grill's Winning Combination

Review: The restaurant nods in the direction of California cuisine, but its heart and soul look to Italy.

May 02, 1999|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Make no mistake about it. Germano Fabiani, who also owns Germano's in Little Italy, may have named his new restaurant Tosca, combining Tuscany and California. He may have put a Californian pizza (tomato, prosciutto, pineapple and curry) and San Diego Involtini (stuffed veal) on the menu. But this handsome restaurant is Italian, heart and soul.

Tosca Grill is located in Owings Mills where Fiori and, before that, the Country Fare Inn used to be. Not in the same building, of course. That 18th-century mansion is gone, replaced by a red-brick office complex.

The new space has its own charm, contemporary but not cold. It's highly designed, from the enormous terra-cotta urns that flank the entrance to the cherry-stained wooden chairs and tables to the chic bar. A folk-art mural of Tuscany that covers one wall softens the room and makes it feel, well, homey.

It's a dining room that would do very well for a business meal or a special occasion, but customers in jeans seem to feel comfortable here, too. The menu is designed to appeal to a wide audience -- pastas and pizzas and a few entrees for under $15 for the neighborhood folks, on up to filet mignon ($26) for a more serious dinner.

When we ordered what our waiter recommended, we were happy. Take the grilled romaine salad. The lettuce, warm and smoky-flavored with Asiago cheese shavings melting into the leaves, was set off with a tangy balsamic vinaigrette. Cloves of roasted garlic served as garnish.

The menu is quite modest in its language when it describes cozze alla livornese as "mussels in marinara sauce." Yes, and Michelangelo's David is a statue. The mussels were fat, fresh and completely grit-free; but the sauce was so fine it overshadowed them. Light but deep-flavored, it had the essence of tomatoes and just the right balance of seasonings. We ate every drop of it.

Carpaccio didn't reach those heights. The tissue-thin slices of raw beef actually stuck to the plate. You had to scrape them off with a fork. The arugula at the center of the plate was gritty, and the flavor of both the meat and the greens was a bit bland.

A crepe filled with spinach, ricotta and Parmesan cheese was luxuriously rich, but could have done with about half as much bechamel sauce and melted cheese. (This is, after all, an appetizer.)

Sometimes simplest is best. That was true of orecchiette pasta gently sauced with broccoli rape (greens), white wine, olive oil and a touch of garlic. And gigantic shrimp grilled in their shells were almost fabulous, but they needed to be taken off the fire a little sooner. Still, they came with fabulous grilled vegetables -- I didn't share a bite of them with any of my guests -- and a golden triangle of polenta.

The Tosca Grill has a classic veal saltimbocca, made with delicate veal scallops, prosciutto and fresh spinach. But order it only if you love the flavor of sage; the herb is not added with a subtle hand.

As a nod to California, we had the San Francisco cioppino (although this seafood stew originated with Italian immigrants, so it's not like sampling California cuisine by ordering -- say -- a Cobb salad). The seafood's broth, like the sauce on the mussels, was a standout, filled with subtle flavors of the sea balanced with tomatoes and herbs. It was chock-full of mussels, shrimp, clams and squid.

Several of the restaurants I've been to lately have walked through dessert. They may have one or two that they make, but mostly they rely on bakery cakes and tarts that look better than they taste. Not so the Tosca Grill.

Each of the four desserts we tried -- all made in house -- was better than the last: For the chocolate lover, profiteroles filled with pastry cream and drenched in hot fudge sauce. For the sophisticate, a French-inspired fruit tart. For the sophisticated chocolate lover, a tiramisu that practically floated off the plate. And for all of you who have a secret passion for Cream-sicles, the Tosca Grill has the world's most elegant variation: panna cotta, a silky custard combined with a tart, fresh orange layer and an intensely citrusy sauce.

TOSCA GRILL

Food: ** 1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 100 Painters Mill Road, Owings Mills

Hours: Open every day for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $4-$8; main courses, $11-$26

Call: 410-581-1400

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

Pub Date: 05/02/99

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