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Thursday, June 10, 2004 09:35 pm

Tuscany offers quality Italian in a casual setting

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Chef Shelby Padilla: “We try to change dishes around.”
Nick Steinkamp

I had two thoughts after dining at Tuscany: "Why haven't I been here before?" and "I'll be back."

The inside of the restaurant resembles an Italian patio, mostly because of painting done by local artist Dana Pfeiffer. Pfeiffer has made the walls look like old crumbling stone and painted a blue ceiling with clouds to evoke the feeling of the open sky. A small area in the back of Tuscany's single large dining room can be partitioned off to provide privacy for a special gathering. Its walls depict a black iron fence, complete with birds perched on top.

That large dining room can be slightly noisy at times, but the hubbub adds to Tuscany's feeling of a casual family restaurant, complete with red-and-white checkered tablecloths, in an old Italian neighborhood. The night we dined there, two men sat at tables next to each other. One was clad in a suit and tie, the other in a loud Hawaiian shirt, jean shorts, and sandals. The contrast is a perfect example of the appeal of the restaurant, which serves upscale Italian food in a casual environment.

Some people are familiar with this West Side restaurant because of the publicity it received when actor Ray Liotta visited (his father-in-law, George Messer, is one of the three owners). You might also spot local celebrities such as Springfield Mayor Tim Davlin and Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White.

The restaurant, which opened in 1999, has undergone several name changes, possibly faster than any other eatery in town. After a couple of years as Rizzi's, it was renamed Casa Mia -- but a customer came in to order burritos on the first day of operation under the new name. The next day, says general manager Marty Janssen, the name was changed to Tuscany to head off any further confusion as to what kind of food was being served.

Appetizers include mussels, fried artichoke hearts, baked goat cheese served with garlic, toasted pita wedges, bruschetta, grilled flatbread, garlic bread, and shrimp scampi. We chose the fried calamari. The tentacles and rings of sliced squid, breaded and fried, were served with a dollop of homemade marinara sauce. The squid was nice and chewy, coated with just enough breading to cling to the seafood but not overpower it. On the menu it's called a house favorite, and rightly so. It was a delicious way to start the meal.

For dinner, my husband and I chose two pasta dishes: mostaccioli Siciliana and capellini Marechiara. The mostaccioli was a blend of Italian sausage, peppers, and onions in a spicy marinara sauce. The sauce melded perfectly with the sausage and crunchy slices of red and green pepper. My husband deemed it one of the best Italian dishes he's ever eaten. The seafood pasta dish -- large shrimp, scallops, calamari chunks, and mussels, tossed in a rich pink tomato-and-cream sauce -- was equally divine. Our meals were served with crisp green salads featuring the excellent house Italian dressing and warm, crusty bread paired with olive oil, garlic, and rosemary for dipping.

Other pasta options include pesto and Gulf shrimp; linguini with clam sauce; hand-rolled manicotti; cannelloni; baked lasagna; fettuccine carbonara tossed with bacon, proscuitto, onion, eggs and cream; hand-rolled cannelloni stuffed with veal and pork; and spaghetti and homemade meatballs. Veal and chicken are offered in many guises -- sautéed in Marsala sauce, lightly breaded and baked in marinara sauce with mozzarella, dipped in egg and sautéed in lemon butter with white-wine sauce, sautéed in wine sauce with portobello mushroom, spinach, and artichokes. Steaks and pork dishes are also available. The portions are huge, and each of us took home half of an entrée to savor the next day.

At Tuscany, dishes can be made to order. "We're going for scratch-made here," says Janssen. "We're not 'safe' in what we're trying. We're making a dish for you. We're more guest-focused." Adds chef Shelby Padilla -- a veteran of Fritz's Wagon Wheel and Augie's Front Burner -- "We can customize orders. We cook to people's liking. We try to change dishes around."

During our visit, the waitstaff was friendly and the bartender was helpful in recommending a good, inexpensive wine to enjoy on the outdoor patio while we waited for a table.

A few changes have been made recently at Tuscany. Lunch hours have been discontinued for the summer months, but a limited menu of early-bird specials has been added for patrons who dine between 4 and 6 p.m. Padilla has reinvented several menu items and added a fish special of the day, plus three new salads. "I love making salads," says Padilla. "I like using different vinaigrettes. Bringing it all together is the best part of it."

I like a restaurant whose staffers give honest opinions about what their establishment does best and don't try to pass off purchased items as homemade. Our waiter informed us that the only dessert made on-site that night was the bread pudding, so we ordered it. He came back to say that the chef wasn't happy with the way the pudding had turned out and therefore wasn't comfortable serving it. We appreciated their honesty and chose the tiramisu, which was light and delicious. Our other options on that visit were cheesecake, chocolate cake, and crème brûlée -- but the dessert menu is in the midst of being revamped as well.

Tuscany is located at 3123 Robbins Rd.; 726-5343. Summer hours: 4-10 p.m. Mon.-Sat., 4-9 p.m. Sun.
Early-bird specials are available 4-6 p.m. Sun.-Fri.

South African wine dinner

Corkscrew Wine Emporium and Indigo Grill are teaming up to host one of South African's leading vintners.

A wine dinner will be held June 23 featuring Ken Forrester, who will be in the U.S. this month to attend the Aspen Food and Wine Festival. Corkscrew owner Geoff Bland visited Forrester in his native country recently and invited him to Springfield. The dinner will pair South African wine with food prepared by Indigo Grill.

The three-course dinner will feature seared prawns over bacon, Guinea fowl on baby arugula with citrus vinaigrette, and pan-roasted beef medallion with potato gnocchi and lobster-cognac demi glace. Appetizers include rock shrimp sate cured in lime and tequila, tuna sashimi with crisp root chips, and tempura veggies with ponzu aioli.

Fresh seasonal fruit and shaved cheese drizzled with a port wine balsamic reduction will be served for dessert.

Dinner is at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 23, at Indigo Grill. Reservations may be made by calling The Corkscrew at 698-1112. Seating is limited. The cost is $60 per person.

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