For 21 years, Vinicio Paoli has brought the big flavors of Tuscan cuisine to his little storefront trattoria in Beacon Hill. Until recently, his wonderful fresh-baked bread, superb pasta dishes, and reverie-inducing desserts have been reserved only for those willing to pay Ristorante Toscano's upscale prices. But now cheap eaters can join in the feast, too. In July, Paoli introduced a cafe menu in a section of the restaurant. You still get the formal service and white tablecloths of the main dining room. The pleasing rust- and yellow-hued walls and brickwork remain. Even most of the authentic Tuscan menu is the same. What's new is that the pressure is off.
"We have a lot of young people living on the Hill now and a lot of older people that don't want to eat a lot of food. We just wanted to try to give them a nice menu with a lot of things to choose from without charging an arm and a leg," said Paoli.
On the cafe side, no one expects you to order one of the main restaurant's meat entrees or daily specials that run in the $25 range. It's OK to come in just for, say, the same top-notch soup and salad usually reserved as a first course on the main menu.
A good combo is the wonderful roasted red pepper soup ($7.50), a simple puree with just a hint of onion and a swirl of olive oil, and the Caterina salad ($9) of baby greens with capers, olives, and salt-cured anchovies -- which the server will top with a twist of black pepper at the table, of course.
The cafe side also now serves panini sandwiches on the house focaccia, which is baked twice daily. Though the pork loin panini ($12) fell flat with our group, we enjoyed the prosciutto and artichoke panini ($10) smothered in mild fontina cheese.
It's also now possible to just make a light snack of appetizers and dessert. Toscano does some of the best grilled calamari I've had. The portion is petite, but the tender, juicy baby squid, seasoned only with olive oil, salt, and fire, were worth the steep $12 price.
A country pate of chicken liver with capers and anchovy ($7.50) was a rustic treat, though likely too intense for some. Tasty, juicy homemade pork sausages ($9.50) with grilled radicchio wedges also evoked the Tuscan countryside. Desserts included an exquisite, truffle-like dark chocolate torta ($8.50) that seemed to float on the tongue.
But for the full effect, it's best to dine Italian style with a lingering multi-course meal. Paoli, who is both chef and owner, remains unwaveringly true to the cuisine of his native Florence. Here, no trendy ingredients or over-involved recipes distract from the pure, balanced flavors. So even though a full meal at the cafe costs more than the usual cheap eats, it's worth a splurge -- and it's still less than such a fine meal might run you otherwise.
On one visit, our party of three (plus a toddler) shared a plate of delicate antipasto ($12) highlighted by melt-in-your-mouth parma prosciutto and an array of olives and marinated vegetables. Paired with a basket of the house's fresh breads, a nicely grilled vegetable bruschetta with thick slices of squash and endive ($8), and a Caesar salad ($8) with homemade dressing, it was a near-perfect start, except for the slightly overdressed salad.
Our second, and main, course was pasta. The rigatoni Norcina ($14) is a dish to return for -- it was merely pasta lightly tossed in a truffle cream sauce and dotted with bits of homemade sausage, but the perfume and flavor was mile-wide. Tagliolini boscaiola ($11), a tomato-cream sauce rich with the foresty flavor of porcini mushrooms, was in the same class of perfection. Rigatoni strascicati ($12) in red meat sauce was a subtle fuse of beef (freshly ground in house) with the quiet flavors of stewed onion, carrot, celery, and parsley, all lifted by a touch of basil and wine.
The shooting star of the dessert course was a frothy zabaglione. This tingling marsala wine cream dolloped onto big, plump, sweet blackberries ($7.50) was an outrageously good play between tart and sweet. Tiramisu ($8) is a house specialty with real chocolate (not cocoa), homemade pain d'espices spice bread (not ladyfingers), and no alcohol. A vanilla-cream and blackberry tart ($7.50) was an odd mix of flavors, but the miss seemed an anomaly.
More than pleased, and more than full (but not stuffed), we came out with a bill of $93 before tax and tip. Not cheap, but not excessive and certainly not forgettable.