In Pittsburgh Newsweekly
Reviews the Tuscany Cafe


Through the Beverage Glass

It's Kinda Like a Club Down in Old SoHo

no stars: stay home * acceptable * * good * * * very good * * * * outstanding

* * *

Tuscany Cafe
1501 East Carson Street,, South Side

FARE: Fastidious, pure comfort
PRICE: Moderate
ATMOSPHERE: Voluptuous trattoria
HOURS: Mon.-Thurs. 7 a.m.-midnight,
Fri. & Sat. 8 a.m.-2 a.m., Sun. until
midnight. Dinner: Wed.-Sat. 5-10 p.m.,
Sun. 4-10 p.m.

Carson Street has got to be the city's longest avenue of dreams; urban development here has often been comparable to the religious fervor of the gold rush. Many ventures have faltered; as the California fortune hunters found out after unearthing nugget after gleaming nugget of iron pyrite, not all that glitters is gold.

On the other hand, as J.R.R. Tolkien observed, all that is gold does not glitter. From the outside, the Tuscany Cafe looks like just another defenseless yellow brick building tainted with street smog perched on the corner of 15th and Carson. Beer neons, standard. Humble lexicon, standard. Protruding glass storefront augmentations, standard.

Ah, but inside. A platonic mix of coffee shop, bar and restaurant in the guise of a reading room/art gallery. Serenity drips. If a room could be a philosopher, the Tuscany Cafe just took off its glasses for a moment of lofty dreaming.

As we carried on about the soul of the place, a young man from behind the service counter popped into the conversation. "See that yellow-colored mustard sign in the window?" he said, seemingly proud that we approved the decor. "The whole place was that color when we took over."

Now the clubby cherry wood adds warmth against a woodsy green. Twenty feet above, a remarkable beaded tin ceiling exchanges hues like a color wheel on an aluminum Christmas tree, refracting varying degrees of light. Surrealistic tic-tac-toe paintings with giant icons dwarf a tasty collection of black-and-white photos, uniformly framed across the room. They shake different views of an ever-esoteric cityscape at us.

This could be Tuscany. You can see in all directions from the bombardier seats in the front window wings. Halfway down the elongated rectangular room, we walked past the sign that puts up a red flag for anyone under 21 and took a table behind the little eight-seater bar in back. Sometimes it is fun to be older.

A bar patron playing trivia on the counter's video machine is recruiting answers in a way that detail freaks can't resist -- asking questions out loud. "The collective intellect is scored under one guy's name," complained Mr. Dish, dying to join in the game. But our appetites were more impressive than our knowledge of the Corn Flakes rooster's name.

Here's how it works: Order bagels, soup, deli sandwiches, desserts and the beverages that go with them at the service counter. Sit at the well-stocked bar for a cocktail. There is table service during dinner hours, and -- an uncommon Pittsburgh phenomenon -- menus change daily.

Never mind that the food is more stylized American than Italian. Garden salads served on glittering glass plates are crackling and meadow fresh. Balsamic vinaigrette is in every restaurant on the planet, but Tuscany's is divine -- on the same level as the warm, cheese-garlic bread, which is automatically delivered.

"One has to wonder," ruminated Mr. Dish as he ordered that American paradigm, the stuffed pork chop ($13.95), "about a culture that elevates pigs to talking status but eats them for dinner anyway." A good chop is dependent on texture and flavor. This thick, prime cut is unembellished yet excels at its peak of fragrance, beautifully stuffed à la the Thanksgiving turkey -- Sunday dinner comfort food with a hearty baked potato and buttery steamed broccoli and baby carrots chiming in.

I vacillated between baked orange roughy ($12.95) and my ultimate choice of chicken with prosciutto and sage ($11.95), and that was with the intention of testing one of the restaurant's more staid selections. A boneless filet, tender and lined with a layer of prosciutto, is well-marketed with a mild wine sauce. A big pile of white rice keeps harmony with a repeat of the sweet, saucy vegetables.

The rest of the menu that evening: chicken marango with onions and peppers ($10.95), stuffed shells ($9.50), red and green bell pepper crab cakes ($14.95) and a New York Strip ($14.95). Another tip. If you happen to be at Tuscany when the chef is serving lamb, the ex-Chicagoan relays in his letter that it is an impressive rack: "nice, pink, moist and tender."

Does anyone leave room for dessert these days? We do. We made a trip up front to gawk at the glass confectionery and talked ourselves into a fancy yellow buttercake and a white raspberry torte ($3.50 each). Under the giant artichokes and roses in the painting over our shoulders, with the largest cups of coffee I've ever seen in Pittsburgh, we had to check to see if our feet reached the floor. The world was shrinking and so were we, feeling as though we had suddenly slid all the way through reality into Wonderland. Or maybe Middle-Earth.

Or at least into life as we imagine it in the untamed Tuscan countryside. TEXT NAV

Copyright DEBORAH McDONALD, March 10, 1999