Nothing makes you into a devotee of Italian food like a trip to Florence and Tuscany. So when I stumbled upon Trattoria Toscana in the Fenway, fresh from a European sojourn, it was as if I'd never left Italy. This cozy, 24-seat restaurant, featuring traditional, simple Tuscan dishes, is the real deal. It's not Italian-American -- it's Italian.
Trattoria Toscana opened March 30, a dream of owner Zamir Kociaj, a native of Albania who moved to Italy when he was 18. After working in some of Florence's better-known restaurants, he emigrated to the United States last year and opened his own place three blocks from Fenway Park. Best not to go here before a game unless you have time, because you'll want to savor the food.
Tuscan cuisine, Kociaj explained, is genuine, unsophisticated, and homey. Think hearty meats, fresh vegetables, and beans, all simply prepared. And a trattoria, he said, is not a full-scale restaurant. It is a small, neighborhood place, unfussy and affordable. (Only three of the menu's 39 dishes exceed the $15 Cheap Eats ceiling.) Naturally, all of the wines are Italian.
We started with prosciutto di Parma ($12.50), a plate of paper-thin salty ham, juicy tomatoes, and thick mozzarella. The ham came straight from Italy, Kociaj noted, and had little fat on it. The caprese ($8.50) was a similar dish, except without the ham -- a plate of tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt and oregano. Ribollita ($6.50) is not a dish often found in Italian-American restaurants. It is a thick white bean soup with cabbage, carrots, celery, and saltless bread. The soup was hearty, dense, and earthy, nothing like the watery broth diners often encounter when they order soup in this country.
A dish of rigatoni alla norcina ($9.25), or rigatoni with sweet Italian sausage, was a treasure. The sausage was ground, not sliced, and mixed in "soffrito," a base of onions, carrots, and celery, with a dash of white wine. The mix gave the sausage an intense, meaty flavor, and there was no irritating sausage casing to deal with. The melanzane alla parmigiana ($12.50), or oven-baked eggplant with cheese and tomatoes, was constructed of four layers of homemade tomato sauce, parmigiana cheese, and fried eggplant. The dish was a bit too cheesy, but otherwise filling. The risotto ai porcini ($9.25) was a delight, with rice and dried mushrooms imported from Italy. The rice was firm, not mushy, and the slivers of mushrooms were wonderfully salty and just the right size. Ossobucco alla Toscana ($14.95), or veal, was incredibly tender and slid right off the bone. Kociaj cooked it in the same soffrito base that he uses with the sausage, and for two hours over a low flame. It came with a side of perfectly cooked, deep green spinach flavored with lemon and garlic.
Dessert comes from a local Italian supplier. We tried "La Bomba" ($5), or chocolate and vanilla ice cream encased in a thin layer of chocolate. The ice cream was unremarkable, but cracking the layer of chocolate and having it melt in our mouths made us scoop up every bit. Tiramisu ($5) emerged with layers of sinful goodness: First chocolate powder, then the lightest of cream and mascarpone, then lady fingers dipped in espresso. Only crumbs remained when we finished. Service was knowledgeable, friendly, and witty. An example: On our hand-written guest check, our waiter listed dessert as "La la la la la la Bomba!"
We left Trattoria Toscana with smiles on our faces and our stomachs filled. Not a bad way to end an evening.