Tuscan Ye Shall Receive

The starving artist. Men and women dedicated to a life of culture. Everyone knows they lack two things: the physical desire for nutritive sustenance and the money to buy it. Starvation is practically a prerequisite for the production of any important art.

So goes the cliche.
In truth, for every artist who refrains from food shopping in order to afford oils, there's another artist similarly invested A in olive oil. For every writer who fasts only to feast on words, emerging victoriously skinny after a particularly inspiring bout with language, there's another who keeps a bowl of peanuts by the computer (conveniently shelled). And for every actor who empties his stomach before a performance, a sturdier thespian exists who pigs out apras theatre.

The connection between artist and eater is long-standing, sometimes even obsessive. How many still lifes of fruit hang on the walls of the world? How many books and magazines devote themselves solely to the discussion of food? In how many cities, next to how many theaters, has a restaurant opened to take advantage of the trade?

Fulvio Badel, owner of Tuscany Trattoria along with partner Piero Trinchero, admits the Coconut Grove Playhouse has been a boon to his business. The casts and crews of various productions make a late-evening habit of his pappardelle Giuseppe (homemade noodles with a truffle sauce) and tortelloni Mamma Gina (chicken tortelloni with fresh tomato, sun-dried tomatoes, and basil). Season-ticket subscribers from as far north as Boca Raton are also a constituency, eager for the Trattoria's reasonably priced ossobucco on a pile of pasta, accompanied by an order of bruschetta ricci, a grilled bread topped with a tomato salsa. After all, watching good art and making good art similarly stir the appetite. Consistent satisfaction of those appetites is what marks Tuscany Trattoria as a regular spot for the theater crowd.

The Playhouse, however, is not the reason Badel chose his Main Highway location in late 1991. In what seems to be an emigration almost as widespread as that of the New York eateries on South Beach, Italian restaurateurs have flooded South Florida with fettuccini. Badel, a native of Lake Como, Italy, and proprietor of the successful Trattoria Toscano (which continues operations under different ownership in Tuscany), inspected several areas A South Beach and Coral Gables to name two A before settling in the Grove.

It's not the local competition that guided his decision, though there is plenty of that. In fact, Badel's view is the more Italian restaurants, the better. Quite simply, he liked the Grove for its charm. (Or what remains of its charm.)

He also was drawn to the Grove's blend of visitors and residents. The tourists, he claims, are drawn as much to his cotta florentino tiles and decorative painted dishes as they are to his rollatino di pollo fantasia, an authentic Tuscan recipe of poultry wrapped around asparagus, sliced like sushi, and served elegantly on a tangy, wine-based marinara with a side of sauteed spinach. Badel says it's not uncommon for tourists to pause and photograph the Trattoria, citing its resemblance to original Tuscan eateries, then stay for an unplanned dinner.

Local residents, however, are his mainstay, and they obviously appreciate the outdoor dining facilities, the comforting green-and-white-checked tablecloths, and the generous selections of true northern Italian favorites such as pollo paillard (marinated and grilled chicken breast) and bistecca al tignanello, a grilled steak served with wine sauce.

Grilling is a Tuscan trademark, an example of the central Italian region's tradition of "rustic" cuisine: simple preparations that make wonderful use of the most fragrant of herbs: rosemary, sage, and basil. At Tuscany Trattoria, this countryside combination of grill and garden can be found in the tagliata di manzo "il palio", a sliced grilled sirloin for two served in a delicate fresh herb sauce.

We tried a different rustic combination, the pollo valdostano, a cousin to France's cordon bleu A breast of chicken covered with ham and fontina cheese. We found the saltiness of the ham and the smoothness of the cheese to be complementary to the poultry, though it was slightly dry and arrived alone on its plate, without any accompaniment of vegetable or starch.

The etymology of the word "Tuscany" is thought to derive from the Etruscans, inhabitants of ancient Etruria, which now comprises Tuscany and parts of neighboring Umbria. The Etruscans were known for their enjoyment of life, and they liked their food, as with their lives, to be uncomplicated, ungoverned by the riches of anything except those of the land. Surviving artwork shows their principal occupations to be eating, drinking, and laughing, an enviable legacy embraced with vigor by contemporary Tuscans.

The region's cuisine reflects that Etruscan philosophy. Dishes are rich with vegetables and herbs rather than cream, though cream does make occasional appearances. Food is always fresh and frequently light, prepared with the olive oil for which the region is recognized (Lucca, a city on the western edge of Tuscany and just north of Pisa, produces an outstanding press of oil).

Pastas that originated in Tuscany have since influenced the whole of Italy. Long egg noodles such as tagliatelle and pappardelle, and stuffed pastas such as tortelloni, tortelli, and canneloni are all attributed to Tuscany. (Some suggest these dishes sprung from the famed Emilia-Romagna region just north of Tuscany, and then spread southward. But it is quite the opposite.) At Tuscany Trattoria we gorged on a huge portion of spaghetti alle olive, spaghetti with a black olive pesto sauce. (Pesto, contrary to the common American assumption, needn't necessarily be made with basil, pignolia nuts, oil, and garlic. Any herbs ground with mortar and pestle qualifies as a pesto.) To me this dish represents everything that is delightful about Tuscan cuisine A the emphasis on basil and other herbs, the employment of whole olives as well as their oil, the freshly chopped tomatoes.

We also ordered the tagliatelle verdi al salmone, one of the few dishes on the menu cooked with cream. Over long, flat noodles the color of the tablecloth, smoked salmon and pink peppercorn combined deliciously. Though I may attribute the pasta to Tuscany, I would concede that the idea for smoked salmon as well as the cream most likely began in Emilia-Romagna, which is famous for this type of preparation.

Self-styled gourmand La Rochefoucauld wrote, "To eat is a necessity, but to eat intelligently is an art." The Tuscans, with their passion for grilled meats, fresh fruit, and vegetables of all kinds, were ahead of their time in terms of healthy cuisine. And with the addition of restaurants like Tuscany Trattoria, in these fat-phobic, cholesterol-concerned times, it behooves us all to eat just as smartly, and call ourselves artists.


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