Cafe Reviews

Resorting to Anchovies

I've just realized that I've never eaten a fresh anchovy before. That's no great surprise to many people, I'm sure -- "no anchovies, please" is a classic pizza request for good reason. Most of my friends wrinkle their noses at the exceedingly salty, sour fishiness, and the off-putting grayish-green coloring. Even servers sometimes cringe when I ask for anchovies on my Caesar salad, or as a side to nibble on with bruschetta dripping with ripe tomato and olive oil.

Yet these fish that many diners find nasty are flat anchovy fillets from the can, heavily salt-cured, packed in oil, drained and rinsed for serving. A fresh anchovy, I've discovered as I sit here in the swanky Ristorante Tuscany in north Phoenix, is a delicate joy. A fresh anchovy is as close to the processed stuff as chunk light Bumblebee tuna is to a pristine fillet of just-caught albacore.

Tuscany's executive chef Dina Davies stops by my table, and seems genuinely happy that I've stumbled onto the marvel of the small, silvery fish. I'm practically gushing, so impressed am I by the beautiful appetizer she's prepared. It reads simply: chilled asparagus salad with fresh anchovy and olive oil poached tomatoes. But it's the perfect example of what makes the classical cooking at Tuscany so magical. The fan made of asparagus is brilliant lime green, each stalk crisp and unblemished. The tender, meaty fish is sparkling white with a platinum skin. Pear tomatoes are amber-yellow, gently cooked to release warm juices. And the whole rests on a vibrant pond of olive oil and lemon. Nothing weird, nothing trendy, just the clean, sparkling flavors that epitomize regional Italian cuisine.

I am amazed at the whole thing, actually. Ristorante Tuscany is an incredible restaurant, from decor, to service, to each perfect plate of food. And I've heard absolutely nothing about it since it opened quietly last winter. No whispering within the foodie crowd, no press releases landing with a thud on my desk, no e-mails from the dining public at large, those loyal friends who like to drop me notes to make sure I don't miss out on their new favorite discovery. The puzzlement comes up again and again through my inaugural dinner with a globetrotting gourmet companion -- who's been hiding this place from us? The place is quite empty on a Thursday evening, and we wonder if diners are avoiding it for the same reason we had, because it's in an unpromising setting. Tuscany is tucked into the ground floor of the massive, 980-room JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort. Such a corporate hotel location didn't make visiting a priority for me or my gourmet pal, I know.

So now we're feeling pretty stupid for missing out on this place for these past six months. The last time either of us had Italian food this incredible, in fact, was on a trip to Sicily a few years ago. There, we stayed in chalets (comfy remodeled stone horse barns) on a working winery far outside of Palermo. Between trips to casual restaurants in nearby villages, we feasted on meals prepared by the winery owner, fashioned for us from produce plucked fresh from his earth, local cheeses, fruits, breads and meats. Since returning home, we've had only one place at which to find a close fix, the always superb Acqua e Sale at 44th Street and Camelback.

Gourmet Guy and I are now drooling over this menu, trying to decide how to follow up that glittery anchovy. Perhaps it's with another traditional starter of creamy griddled polenta cake, dotted with lightly balsamic-glazed porcini and onions and herbed mascarpone; or an opulent bruschetta platter of tomato and walnut basil pesto, artichoke and pancetta, sweet red pepper and black olive. Still, the chicken liver mousse pâté, sweetened with cognac and decorated with fried onions and caper berries, looks entirely fetching. The sea scallop gratin is calling our names, too, tempting with fennel and tomatoes, rich with butter and crusted with breadcrumbs. Ultimately, it's an easy decision: We must return as many times as it takes to try them all.

And take out a bank loan. Tuscany's high-class ingredients and plush setting don't come cheap. If we were to take on an authentic Italian feast of antipasti (appetizer), primi (first course), secondi (second course), piatti principali (entree) and dolce (dessert), we could easily spend anywhere from $75 to $90 per person, before tax, tip or any beverage (though in a classy touch, Tuscany pours complimentary Panna Still Water from Italy).

But Tuscany is not a place that makes me want to economize. Each time I return, I find a new must-have dish -- the secondi of semolina dumplings, five firm gnocchi stuffed with tart ricotta, fresh juicy spinach and Parmesan in a smooth, silky tomato sauce sparked with grappa (a highly potent, paint-peeling, 40 to 50 percent alcohol-packed but luscious deeply distilled wine). How incredible does this salad sound: baby spinach with Parmesan gelato, grilled pears, spicy pecans and sweet balsamic vinaigrette? For an answer, how does one say "wow wow wow" in Italian? It's a big dish, in size, visually, and in flavor -- possibly a meal with a glass of wine from Tuscany's huge imported selection and a generous serving of Kalamata-studded ciabatta dipped in rosemary-infused olive oil.

But if I made a meal of the appetizers, I wouldn't be eating a remarkable red wine and citrus braised osso buco with morel mushroom risotto, or succulent pounded bone-in pork chop with stuffed cabbage rolls and fried eggplant, dolloped with fig and chestnut honey chutney. Suddenly, that glorious sun-drenched time in Sicily seems almost bland. There we were, swooning over bread, cheese, blood orange preserves, a plate of homemade pasta in pesto and a chunk of white fish, thinking it was the end of the rainbow. Now, I'm smitten with veal scaloppine and sweetbreads saltimboca with fettuccine in mushroom cheese sauce. Gourmet Guy is working on a tender rabbit leg braised in mustard and sage with parsnip purée, pearl onions and escarole (a slightly nutty flavored lettuce). We are completely spoiled for ordinary Italian anymore.

Another night has us bickering over who gets the fish special, an outrageous cut of moist salmon fillet crusted in pistachios, paired with an invigorating salad of fresh sage, cilantro and basil leaves drizzled with preserved lemon.

There's so much to like about Tuscany -- its service, which is friendly but completely professional (our waitress is as skilled as the chef in describing all dishes). Its refined but relaxed environs, with giant windows overlooking a fountain-splashed lake, scatterings of colorful Mediterranean ceramics, warm lighting and a wood-burning oven popping merrily in front of the kitchen. The fact that it's 15 minutes from my home, as opposed to an international flight.

The only misstep I find with Tuscany, in fact, is an endearing one. I beat out my gourmet buddy in ordering the whole roasted trout -- first, because I adore trout, but second, because I'm so intrigued by the menu telling me it's prepared tableside. What, the chef is going to roll out her wood-fired oven and bake the beast before my eyes? Actually, it's an even sillier affair. The fish is wheeled out on a white-clothed cart, presented headless and skin-on on one platter. A second platter of olive-oil-roasted potatoes and nuts plus tomato-purée-ladled green beans rests alongside. The server chops off the tail, then tries to remove the skin. I say try, because armed with just a butter knife, all he manages to do is to shred the poor swimmer. He knows he's destroying my dinner, but I avert my eyes, and he plugs on, finally scraping what's left of the fillet -- plus forkfuls of seafood shrapnel -- onto the potato platter. I don't have the heart to tell him that one of the things I love about trout is the delicate area between its skin and flesh, all fatty juices dripping into the meat. Tuscany provides a cup of drawn butter for dipping, instead.

I'm not a huge dessert fiend. But Tuscany has my brain swimming with sugar lust. Panna cotta is the classic Italian dolce, and it's blissful here, all velvety Grand Marnier crème on a shortbread cookie, speared with a clever little shortbread spork, looped with a curled lacy-thin hazelnut cookie, nested with segmented pink and orange mandarins, and draped with Absolut citrus glaze. It takes several cups of robust French press coffee to cut through the intense richness of a burnt banana Neapolitan, delicate layers of hazelnut genoise, banana brûlée, milk chocolate mousse, cake, ganache, broiled banana and a string of red spun sugar anchored with a hazelnut.

With a feast like Tuscany's, the only thing I need is more anchovies, please.

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet