Launch your gondola in a river of red

Tuscany Italian Restaurant dramatically exceeded expectations for shopping-center dining. The chef, a native of Mexico, has lived and cooked in Italy, and it shows. Photos by Robin Garr.

LEO’s Eat ‘n’ Blog with Louisville HotBytes

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