LA DOLCE VITTLES
Try to guess what these four things have in common: stripping, footsie, finger sucking and orgasms. X-rated movies? No way. These are all acts considered proper fare for restaurants--restaurants on the big screen, that is. From Meg Ryan's fake orgasm--which surely provoked a few arguments on the way home from the theater--in When Harry Met Sally... to Kim Basinger mouthing a cigar while disguised as a man in 9 1/2 Weeks, foreplay has been a standard menu item at movie eateries. And when the appetizer is a combination foot massage/lobster-licking by Jennifer Beals--wearing something that looks like a tuxedo dickey--in Flashdance, it's easy to get carried away with the idea of trying to repeat the performance yourself.
But just how easy is it to reach out and touch somebody in a restaurant? Not very, as we discovered during a foray into the Tuscany, the sole restaurant at the Loews Giorgio Hotel in Glendale.
The dining room had the right trappings for a romantic meal, if not a torrid interlude. Invitingly puffy chairs and sofas reached up to guide us; sexy Italian sculptures and illuminated paintings posed amid the faux and real marble; and distressed walls in Mediterranean tones gave the appearance of age, even though the Tuscany is just seven years old. But while that's plenty of time to establish a reputation as a destination for love--or at the very least, occasions involving Hallmark cards--the restaurant fails to draw the crowds seen in less visually stimulating establishments.
There are reasons for that, as soon became clear. The first snag we hit was our table location: along a railing on the upper deck that put our waists eye-level with the couple below us--and their conversation well within earshot. They were talking about "last night"--as in, "I don't think it defines our relationship" (him), and "Yes, but it obviously means more to me than it does to you" (her). Fortunately, they left early to test their theories, and we found ourselves alone in the empty dining room. Empty, that is, except for the overly attentive waitstaff, one of whom had a Peter Lorre-like delivery and kept asking us, "Kin eye tek thisss for you?" between clenched teeth.
The constant surveillance put a damper on our ardor (as did the tablecloths, which were the right length for raising a foot into a lap if you don't mind looking like a flamingo), so we settled for meaningful eyes and fingertip touches. But the real sensual experience was downing fistfuls of excellent Bluepoint bread served with a garlicky pesto-filled olive oil, even if we had to break eye contact to pick the herbs out of our teeth. We soon moved on to the soup course, where we practiced slurping seductively until my soup went down the wrong pipe and I had a coughing fit.
Which served me right, since I had cheated on the soup course, anyway. The buffalo mozzarella in a tomato broth ($7.50) was technically an appetizer special. "You want this while he has the soup?" the European waiter (one of many here) asked in snide surprise. I'd want it anytime, really; the cheese had been poached in a light tomato consomme strewn with fresh basil and tomatoes. Unfortunately, the tomatoes had been diced instead of sliced, which gave the dish the appearance of a first-year culinary student's idea of presentation. In fact, diced tomatoes seem to be a signature item at the Tuscany; the Tuscan white bean soup ($3), an otherwise sophisticated blend of soft beans and pancetta-flavored broth, contained unnecessary bits of the hothouse variety.
The kitchen's apparent obsession with love apples may stem from executive chef Tim Fields, who boasts an interesting combination of formal as well as hands-on, up-through-the-ranks culinary education that shows in his vision of "nouvelle" Italian. "It's focusing more on light, simple cooking rather than complex, heavy sauces," he says.
Fields is fresh from a month-long trip to Tuscany, where he studied alternately with Lorenza de Medici and "little old ladies who've never gotten into a car but could make incredible pecorino," he says. And somewhere along the way, he had an Italian-food epiphany. "I've been with the company that owns the Loews Giorgio for ten years," he explains (Fields came to the Tuscany in 1991). "I've worked my way up from a cafeteria cook position to now, but it wasn't until I went to Tuscany that I figured it all out. The deal with Italian food is to get the best tomatoes and the best olive oil and the best breads. That's all there is to it."
Well, that and putting the ingredients together in a way that makes sense--which Fields certainly did with the pepper-crusted tuna ($21.25). The fish's pepper underside was potent enough to give us misty eyes; the accompanying salad of fennel and tomato--more of the diced stuff--was delicious; and a mound of steamed broccoli raab, a slightly bitter member of the cabbage family, completed the Italian feel. Even so, it was hard to eat that entree in a seductive manner. We sensed far more potential in the linguini with goat-cheese cream and sun-dried tomatoes ($13.50), with lots of goat cheese and plenty of linguini to dangle into my mouth. Except that every time I tried this trick, Peter Lorre appeared to refill the water glass that I had taken no more than a swallow from. One time he even brought a friend, a waitress-in-training who apparently needed a crash course in water pouring. Her attentive gaze reminded us of the resident who came to watch the doctor deliver our baby--and of course, once that scene popped into our heads, all thoughts of romance disappeared as we tried to remember what time we had to relieve the babysitter.
When we stopped by the Tuscany for lunch, we realized that our timing had been all wrong. At lunch the staff was smaller and less obtrusive, and only two other tables were occupied. The only problem was that this time we had the kid along.
Even so, our eyes were soon rolling back into our heads with ecstasy--over the calamari ($6.25, also available at dinner). The pieces of squid were tender and sparingly coated with seasoned, spicy breadcrumbs, and they came with a wonderful, fiery dipping sauce. We were equally pleased with the cream of asparagus soup ($3), although garlic soup with a touch of asparagus would have been a more apt menu description.
There was no way the menu could have prepared us for the smoked chicken ravioli ($12.75), about ten fat ravioli stuffed with sweet, smoked fowl and tossed in a creamy tomato sauce studded with pine nuts; they arrived on a plate centered by a scoop of dreamy creamed spinach laced with roasted yellow-pepper strips. The dish was filling, rich and innovative--and worth the steep price for a lunch entree. The same could not be said for the veal piccata ($15.25), a coaster-sized piece of veal steeped in an excellent lemon-and-caper juice and placed atop a nest of capellini. "We're looking to lower the prices at lunch and changing the menu," Fields acknowledges. "We can see that they're too high."
Dessert was certainly way up there, in both cost and taste. A wedge of cappuccino mousse cake ($5.50) was spongy and light, not too sweet and blessedly served next to a design of chocolate and raspberry sauces rather than on it. (I wish more kitchens would take note of the fact that once food sits in a sauce, the diner has no choice but to taste it with every bite.) The tiramisu was a three-inch square of espresso-soaked ladyfingers and mascarpone cheese--good, but not six bucks' worth of good.
I'd gladly shell out big money for another pass through the Tuscany's Sunday brunch. The $22.95 blowout included champagne and a dizzying array of food, which the kitchen continually replaced rather than let languish in chafing pans. Separate stations were set up for enormous omelettes, fantastic Belgian waffles and breads (don't miss the lemon poppyseed muffins), cheeses and smoked salmon, and there was also a row of entree items such as eggs Benedict and a rotation of meats and pastas. And all served in the opulent bar of the hotel--complete with doormen, breathtaking marble bathrooms and exquisite lounging areas--which created a nice scene for pampering, even if the staff, rather than your mate, is doing all the work.
Just the thing to roll out of bed for. Next time I'll remember to get a room upstairs.
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