Pizzas and pastas like they should be. Tuscana, which opens on Monday, brings home the flavours of sunny Italy
In my first review on Chef Willi, on Aqua I mis-spelt his name. When I headed back to The Park to apologise, knees knocking together, he cheerfully suggested I bungee jump off Aqua — set eight floors above Nungambakkam High Road’s screaming traffic — without a cord. Then we drank cappuccinos.
All this to explain Tuscana, which opens on Monday. Warm, raucous and independent, the restaurant is the result of an alchemy of various friendships built up over the years by Chef Willi (formerly with The Park) and Vipin Sachdev (of Pink Papaya foods, which runs Subway). The restaurant, for starters, is a bright combination of Vipin’s savvy marketing and Chef Willi’s flair for food. Catering to both the in-house crowd and the take-home market, it focuses on simple and authentic Italian fare.
So how do professional chefs get their food to taste like it came out of a rustic Italian trattoria? Well, judging by the food trail I dropped in on, a lot of friendly arguing helps immensely. (Fortunately, the restaurant is on ground level so I could jump in fearlessly). Combine a wonderfully vociferous mix of people, all armed with strong opinions, and you’ll understand why Tuscana’s food is so solid. After all, every item’s gone through a trial by fire. I land smack in the middle of a discussion on salt. Yes, salt. There’s a fascinating Italian restaurateur/tarot card reader/wood-fire oven expert who is telling the cooks to use smaller grains on the springy foccaccia, sprinkled with rosemary and olive oil.
Inside the kitchen, Rupa a friend of Willi’s, is layering mozzarella, pasta sheets and a rich chunky sauce creating a deliciously wobbly lasagne tower. “I went to Italy when I was 16,” she says, going on to talk of how she learnt to cook in Italian trattorias. Meanwhile, more people have gathered for the food trail lunch at a big communal table in the restaurant. There’s a heated discussion on the farinata, a crisp chickpea bread, conducted in a mix of Italian and English. Then Chef Jaideep starts bringing out trays of steaming pizzas, pretty with bright tomato sauce and fragrant emerald basil, all fresh from Tuscana’s hefty old-fashioned wood fire ovens. This triggers off a heated discussion on how to get tart Indian tomatoes to taste like their more mellow Italian counterparts without having to resort to sugar.
The two sweltering wood-fired ovens, set outside and cloaked in aromatic, shimmering air, are really Tuscana’s crown jewels. In Italy, using these ovens is the only acceptable way to bake a pizza. Heated to about 300 degrees Celsius with burning mango wood here, the oven absorbs the heat and then cooks the pizza base crisp, melts the cheese and imparts a subtle flavour of the wood.
Not surprisingly, the pizzas are excellent. We try the folded Calzone Ripieno, slicing it to release steam fragrant with the flavours of ricotta, spinach and mushrooms. For the meat eaters, there’s a Ruspante, with smoked chicken, blue cheese and capers. If that’s not exotic enough, order the Porfirio with goat cheese, pancetta and avocado.
The pastas are rich and comforting. You can choose from a range that includes cute orecchiette, classic penne and fresh egg-based tagliatelle. Then pick accompaniments that range from clams to spicy lamb sausage. They have all the Italian classics: risotto, ravioli, gnocchi. Most tend to be more hearty than pretty. With generous puddles of cheese.
Rich meals. Lush desserts. Everything here is unabashedly over-the-top. Too many pictures on the walls. Too many tables too close together. Too much rich cheese. It’s quite comfortingly sincere, really. Like an evening with good friends. You know you’ve over-indulged yourself. But if it makes you happy, it’s worth it.
Tuscana is at No. 19, 3rd Street, Wallace Garden, Nungambakkam (Tel: 45038008). It’s open for lunch and dinner. A meal for two cost approximately Rs. 600.