Some days I feel like authentic Italian cuisine, and nothing but the real thing will do. Some days a plate of spaghetti and meatballs seems just right. Happily, our city offers a few good options for the authentic stuff (Primo and Volare top my list), and we’re practically awash in eateries (with Melillo’s leading the pack) where you can fill up with hearty, red-sauced Italian-immigrant cuisine. Not to mention pizza.
Food snobs may diss the long-simmered, garlicky tomato-sauced stuff as inauthentic, but who doesn’t love it? Still deeply rooted in the peasant cuisine of Sicily and Calabria in Southern Italy from where so many Americans came, it has become comfort food for us all, never mind whether we have a vowel on the end of our name.
This week we travel to opposite ends of the metro region to check out two worthy recent additions. We’ve been up the river a piece in Indiana to find excellent pizza and intriguing beers at Charlestown Pizza Company, and out into the South End to discover heart-warming comfort food with a hint of a south-of-the-border accent at Tuscany Italian.
I’ve unburdened an occasional rant about the abuse of the geographical term “Tuscany” as a trendy synonym for “Italian,” even in institutions that have no discernible connection with Tuscany, the ancient region of Florence and Chianti. But this affectation seems innocently harmless at the just-opened Tuscany Italian Restaurant, out beyond Iroquois Park in a giant shopping center (big enough to house both a Big K and a Wal-Mart) at the corner of New Cut Road and Outer Loop.
Tuscany is down at the far west end of the complex, set in the corner of an L-shaped strip where it shares space with a smoke shop, tanning salon, cell phone stores and a check-cashing outfit. Whatever you’re looking for, if you can’t get it here, you probably didn’t want it anyway.
The venue is simple but pleasant, two long rooms painted with Alfredo-color walls and creamy tomato trim. A few paintings, maroon leatherette booths and heavy wood tables set the scene; Italian-style golden oldies fill the air, not too loud, ranging from Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” to folk tunes sung in Italian. As a matter of fact, I think I heard one ballad in Spanish, and that wouldn’t be overly surprising, as I’m told the chef — and most of the friendly, competent staff — hail from Mexico.
Our server said the chef has lived and cooked in Italy, though, and I’m prepared to believe it, as our dishes — red-sauced comfort fare though they may be — dramatically exceeded expectations for shopping-center dining.
A basket of focaccia-style flatbread, light and warm with a gentle crust, had been brushed with a little oil and topped with fresh herbs and a dusting of grated Parmigiano, with a tub of thick, tangy-sweet warm marinara sauce for dipping. We nibbled most of it, trying not to spoil our appetites, and had to gently but firmly resist repeated entreaties that we have some more.
We shared a Caprese ($5.50), the classic Italian salad. Six thick rounds from a small, ripe tomato had been drizzled with good, green olive oil and hefty slices of real buffalo-milk mozzarella, topped with snipped fresh basil and, an offbeat but palatable touch, dried oregano.
A lunch order of baked lasagna ($6.95) arrived on two stacked plates, the top one hot enough to merit a server’s warning. A thin but firmly packed square of rich, steaming lasagna featured layers of tender wide noodles, creamy ground beef and cheese topped with a thick blanket of melted Parmigiano and surrounded by a textured, tangy bright-red marinara sauce with lots of herbs. It was simple and rich, and I liked it.
A lunch order of chicken fettuccine Alfredo ($7.95) was generously portioned, with plenty of flavorful grilled chicken breast strips covered with a mound of wide fettuccine noodles cloaked in a creamy, cheesy Alfredo. There’s nothing not to like here.
With good, fresh iced tea and a diet cola, a filling lunch for two came to an entirely reasonable $24.27, plus a $5 tip. We’ll be back to try the pizza.
Tuscany Italian Restaurant
9 New Cut Road
On the town square in tiny Charlestown, Ind., a short trip upriver from Jeffersonville, Charlestown Pizza Company occupies a large venue that looks almost like a dance hall, complete with a big, funky circular crystal light fixture above — a legacy, apparently, from a Chinese restaurant that was a prior tenant.
Seven months in business and building a strong word-of-mouth reputation, it turns out that it’s run by folks who learned their pizza and beer at New Albanian Brewing Company (née Rich O’s/Sportstime Pizza). That’s a very good pedigree indeed, and it’s reinforced on Charlestown’s beer list, which features a, er, mug shot of New Albanian publican Roger A. Baylor, warning diners away from mass-market “lite” beers with a stern, “Don’t Drink Swill.”
Indeed, these folks are very serious about their beer, and the selection is exceptional, featuring about 18 bottled beers, all extremely interesting artisan brews with a strong focus on Southern Indiana and the Louisville area.
Draft microbrews, they tell us, are coming soon.
We couldn’t resist splitting a discreet lunchtime glass of The Three Floyds Pride And Joy Mild Ale from Munster, Ind.; and a pleasant glass it was, golden in color with a creamy head, a very fresh, nose-tingling “dry-hopped” citrus-grapefruit aroma and pleasantly bitter flavor.
The short menu includes a variety of Italian-style sandwiches ($3.75 for a half-sandwich, $7 for a whole), plus salads and a couple of hearty Italian-American dishes (baked spaghetti, $4.50, and baked lasagna, $6).
Fresh-made, hand-tossed pizza comes in three sizes (8-inch solo, 14-inch medium and 18-inch large), ranging in price from $3 (for a cheese solo) to $25.50 (for a large with “ultimate” toppings, your choice of five to 10 goodies that include the familiar — pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms — and the more out-there — jalapeños, pineapple, garlic, but no anchovies).
We went with a medium sausage, pepper and onion and were quite satisfied. The crust was well-made and paper-thin if not quite cracker-crisp. Tangy tomato sauce was painted on with proper discretion, topped with plenty of melted cheese showing appetizing brown caramelized spots. Our three-topping selection was amply topped but not overloaded with mild sausage (no hint of Italian fennel) and good, freshly chopped bits of green pepper and white onion cooked just to al dente crispness in the pizza oven. It’s cut in squares, not wedges, and qualifies as a good, straightforward rendition. No, it’s not New York style. Nor is it, well, “Tuscan.” It doesn’t have to be.
We packed about half of the oversize delight in a take-home box, and passed on the dessert pizza ($5), a small pie dressed with cream cheese and your choice of cherry, apple or peach.
A fine meal and a memorable beer (plus an iced tea and a cola) rang up a toll of only $20.71, plus a $4.29 tip.
Charlestown Pizza Co.
850 Main St.
The local restaurant scene is simmering this month, with lots of openings coming up and chefs packing U-Hauls and moving around town. Following Chef Dallas McGarity’s recent departure from Volare for country club cooking, Chef Chris Howerton moves from Club Grotto to take charge at Corbett’s in Brownsboro Crossing, opening in late November. (We’re still watching Club Grotto to see who’ll move to this highly regarded Bardstown Road spot.) Meanwhile, Chef Jerome Pope of The Coach Lamp is taking over for Tony Efstratiadis at Stratto’s in Clarksville. Also, Anthony Lamas will open his second eatery, Seviche A Latin Bistro, on Goose Creek Road this month. Mangia!
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