Dinner Theater 

At Cucina Toscana, owner Valter Nassi serves as maestro for the menu.

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I was amazed recently to realize that it had been more than four years since I last set foot in Cucina Toscana. How could that be? This, after all, was one of my favorite Salt Lake City restaurants, and since my last visit, I’ve heard oodles of opinions about the place. The only other local restaurant that seems to garner such diverse assessments'often quite vociferous'is La Caille. And I think I know why.

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It would be easy to dismiss the negative opinions of Cucina Toscana by chalking them up to “Olive Garden syndrome.” That is, people mistakenly think that they’re going to find the sort of Italian-American cuisine served at Macaroni Grill, The Olive Garden, Buca di Beppo, et al. But I really don’t think that’s the case. Folks show up at Cucina Toscana knowing that they’re in for creative, well-executed (mostly Northern) Italian cuisine with a Tuscan flair. Just as you don’t book tables at Spencer’s Steakhouse expecting The Sizzler, I think only a small minority of Cucina Toscana customers step into that restaurant thinking Tucci’s. But even if we toss out the “oops!” factor, Cucina Toscana still seems to generate many mixed opinions. I know many who love it'and others who loathe it.

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For better or worse, I think it all comes down to one man: The owner of Cucina Toscana, Valter Nassi. At a recent weekend dinner, Nassi greeted my wife and me with hugs and kisses. It’s not just us; Nassi seems to welcome all of his customers this way, as though they were old friends who had shown up for dinner in his home. During a dinner at Nassi’s restaurant, the hugs and kisses are too plentiful to count. Anyone feeling a little lonely would do well to book a Cucina Toscana table pronto.

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A large plate (much too large for two people to dent) of bruschetta arrives: Thick slices of grilled crusty bread topped with chopped ripe tomatoes and fresh basil. Bruschetta is not listed on the menu; it merely appears at the hands of Nassi. Soon after, a large (plenty for two to share) platter of antipasto ($11.50) shows up: A pretty pile of artichokes, asparagus, zucchini, shaved fennel and cannellini beans, surrounded by cured meats (bresaola, prosciutto, salami and speck), along with chunks of parmesan cheese and an incredible tasting fresh cow’s milk cheese from Lombardy called stracchino. Nassi recommends spreading the delicious stracchino on sliced Italian bread, so I do'and it’s heavenly.

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The place is packed. Tables are flowing with wine. There’s a tremendous buzz in the air. I know I’m in the right place on a Saturday night when we spot Matt Caputo (Tony Caputo’s son) at the table next to us. Nassi floats from table to table as well-trained servers try to keep up with his sporadic special requests. He’s a demanding boss, but the service at Cucina Toscana is superb. Our server with a long Thai surname who’s just called “O” is fabulous, as is Carlo and the entire staff of the restaurant. It’s really quite enjoyable.

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This brings me to my theory about Nassi. I’ve known him for a long time, and ate at his restaurant in the theater district of New York City many years ago. He’s a flamboyant fellow, always snappily dressed in expensive suits, kissing, hugging and dashing from diner to diner. To some, he comes off as a little “over the top.” My wife noted that “Valter wasn’t made for Utah.” But Nassi loves Utah, and he loves his work. The key, though, is that I don’t think he sees his job as merely restaurateur. He is an impresario, someone who fit perfectly into New York’s theater scene. At Cucina Toscana, I think that Nassi functions as the maestro. Each evening, he creates a symphony of sorts in his special restaurant. I’ve really never seen anything quite like it. And I can’t imagine dining at Cucina Toscana without Nassi. It just wouldn’t be the same place.

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Now, some people are put off by Nassi’s European flair, continental manners and theatrical personality. Frankly, I used to think it was all an act, but I’m pretty convinced by now that the Nassi you see each and every night at Cucina Toscana is the real Nassi, take him or leave him. I adore the guy.

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He insists that I try his roasted beet salad even though I have an aversion to beets. It’s sensational, but that doesn’t quite hit the high note of a simple chopped arugula salad, topped with nothing other than a spritz of lemon, shaved parmesan cheese and Acacia honey. It is out of this world'and none of this is on the menu. The best strategy at Cucina Toscana is to simply say to Nassi, “Feed us.” He will.

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We work our way through many delicious dishes, including Nassi’s wonderful Pollo Della Casa ($20), which is essentially chicken piccata, but the best I’ve ever eaten. Still, the most triumphant movement of the Cucina Toscana symphony begins with Nassi grating fresh Parmiggiano-Reggiano to cover my wife’s plate: an overture. At the edge of our table is a large bowl of uncooked Arborio rice. Nassi vanishes and then quickly reappears at our table with a hot, steaming saucepan of creamy porcini mushroom risotto, which he ladles atop the plate of shredded cheese. Reaching into the bowl of raw Arborio rice, he procures a fresh black truffle the size of a handball and shaves paper-thin slices onto the risotto. What a finale!

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The Italian word for delicious is squisito. Meals at Cucina Toscana are quite squisito. After all, they’re orchestrated by a very talented, passionate maestro.

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CUCINA TOSCANA
n307 W. Pierpont Ave.
n328-3463
nDinner served Monday-Saturday

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