During the 10-plus years that Cucina Toscana has been in business, it’s been, at times, the best Italian restaurant in Salt Lake City—and, at other times, the most disappointing. In recent years, especially, the place seemed to have taken on a circus-like atmosphere. The emphasis seemed to be more on the “show” that a dinner there had become, rather than on the cuisine that had garnered the restaurant and its staff so many well-deserved kudos over the years.
But, beginning in fall 2012, Cucina Toscana began to turn a corner. Owner Ken Millo, having just opened Vivace, decided it was time to breathe new life into Cucina Toscana, beginning with a décor update and—more importantly—hiring new chef Elio Scanu. Now, I’m on record as saying that Scanu is one of the most talented and creative chefs working in the West. And, since his imprimatur has been stamped onto the Cucina Toscana menu, I believe that more than ever. Simply put, Cucina Toscana has never been better.
Probably wisely, Ken Millo chose to update the menu and dishes at Cucina Toscana piecemeal. He didn’t want to scare off regular customers. Some people, like me, who were aware of Scanu’s ability, might have preferred a more rapid and radical redux; I was eager to see Scanu strut his stuff. Now that the menu has been revamped, that’s exactly what he’s doing—and the results are delicious.
Fear not. Longtime Cucina Toscana fans will be happy to know they can still get the sensational Caesar salad for two ($14), prepared tableside, like always. And there’s a menu of Cucina Toscana “classics” such as spaghetti with clam sauce, chicken piccata, veal scallopine and gnocchi pomodoro for anyone who prefers old-school Toscana to new.
For me, though, it’s the innovative new dishes that Scanu and sous chef Raymond Greene have brought to the menu that are exciting: roasted beet carpaccio ($10), for example, made with purple and gold beets, Drake Family Farms chÃ¨vre, apple, horseradish and avocado. Or, perhaps a distinctly different carpaccio: this one of see-through-thin slices of sushi-grade tuna topped with an airy ricotta mousse, ripe grape tomatoes and diced avocado ($15). An absolutely tremendous antipasti option is roasted wild-boar ribs ($16), served on a bed of arugula with a sticky, sweet and spicy quince mostarda glaze and garnished with Marcona almond gremolata. Wow.
The pasta offerings at Cucina Toscana have never been better, either. Most of the pasta is handmade. Risotto is prepared from scratch, brought to the table in the steaming pot it was cooked in and ladled into warm bowls. Especially tempting is the organic Acquerello risotto with porcini mushrooms, shaved black truffle and Castelmagno blue cheese from Piedmont ($32). Looking for something rich and decadent? Try the housemade sweet-potato ravioli ($26), draped with a creamy Parmigiano-Reggiano “milk” and topped with ground hazelnuts, sage and saba (grape-must syrup). Another pasta favorite is the outstanding handmade saffron tagliolini (the saffron threads are actually pounded into the pasta dough while it’s being made), cooked perfectly al dente and tossed in a spicy chile-infused olive oil with lots of lump crab meat ($29). One more pasta dish not to miss: strozzapreti ($24), which is elongated pasta similar to cavatelli, tossed in a rich rosemary-scented ragu of braised and shredded duck with Picholine olives.
Entree-size secondi piatti dishes tend to be big and bold, like osso buco Piemontese ($38) or the oversize pork chop crusted with quince mostarda and served with borlotti beans ($34). The best of the bunch, though, is the thick, roasted wild-halibut fillet ($38), presented in a large shallow bowl encircled by shrimp porcini mushrooms, peas, clams and, supposedly, soft-shell crab. Someone forgot the soft-shell crab when we ordered it, but it was still a delightful dish.
Service at Cucina Toscana has never been better. General manager Corey Lewis is a no-nonsense guy who runs a tight ship, and top-notch servers like Randi make dining a joy. The wine selection is terrific, too, especially the hard-to-find, special-ordered Italian wines on the list. And, getting rid of the shabby lace curtains as well as a lot of the photos and bric-a-brac that once cluttered the restaurant makes it feel more roomy and airy than before. It’s worth mentioning that Cucina Toscana also has the most comfortable chairs in town.
What? You want more? Well, to add to the appeal of the renewed Cucina Toscana, Scanu and his crew host special monthly “Trattonomy” wine dinners. This month’s Trattonomy event was stupendous, beginning with a gorgeous antipasti of ahi tuna in a blood orange and Campari emulsion, “tonnato” sauce, arugula and crispy flash-fried capers. It was paired beautifully with Bibi Graetz Bugia 2009, made from 100 percent Ansonica grapes, with lovely notes of peaches and cream. Just as sensational was “inside-out” pasta Bolognese: fresh tortelloni pasta stuffed with liquefied Parmigiano-Reggiano and 42-day-cured rib-eye tartare. The terrific tortelloni simply exploded on the palate.
Another Trattonomy crowd-pleaser was duck leg roasted on low heat for 24 hours, lacquered with a delicious raspberry balsamic and served with a mousseline of broccoli rabe. Wine expert Marco Stevanoni chose a delicious Italian red-wine blend, Bibi Graetz Testamatta 2003, to accompany the duck. There was also a phenomenal offering of pork belly with orange caramel sauce and potato & olive oil “mayonnaise”; and a garlic-, grapefruit- and juniper-spiked grilled lamb chop paired with Castello di Volpaia Il Puro 2006, a beautiful Italian Sangiovese. The finale? A tasting of nine different gelato, of course.
Now that the clowning around has subsided, it’s great to see Cucina Toscana again doing what it does best: producing extraordinary food.
307 W. Pierpont Ave.