Comfort and Joy

By staff May 1, 2008

The original La Tosca in Osprey has, in less than two years, established itself as a local favorite. Now chef Gianluca Di Costanzo is sharing the love with a second La Tosca, this one way north in a Lakewood Ranch shopping center. It’s a welcome addition to the emerging dining scene in this thriving made-from-scratch suburb.

White tablecloths are the order of the day in the cozy dining room, where attentive waiters come and go in ankle-length gray aprons. Murals in niches evoke Italian vistas. The black ceiling over the bar twinkles with imitation stars. Behind the bar is a wood-burning brick pizza oven.

The fare is heavily weighted toward artfully executed comfort food. Gnocchi, those darling little potato dumplings, dressed simply and deliciously in tomatoes and basil, are among 14 tempting pasta offerings. Chicken scallopine sautéed in marsala sauce with mushrooms is one of seven secondi piatti (second courses) with meat or fish. Fettucine with cream sauce can be had on the side. Finish up, if you like, with gelato or sorbet.

You get the picture: good, unfussy food drawn from several regions of Italy. The chef describes the style as both rustic and contemporary. I call it heartwarming and satisfying.

Whenever I spot fried calamari on a promising menu I order it, always hoping that I will find someone who prepares the dish as simply and flawlessly as Pedro Sevilla, a gifted Spanish chef I met when he was cooking in Tucson several years ago. Di Costanzo comes as close as anyone I’ve found recently.

His calamari fritte appetizer ($7.99) treats squid as delicately as it deserves, barely breading it, flash frying it in light oil and serving it with a fresh lemon wedge, which is all the saucing good calamari really needs. A ramekin of warm marinara is provided for hard-core dippers. The portion is generous enough for two.

Colette chose another classic starter, mozzarella e pomodoro ($6.99), which pairs slices of fresh mozzarella with generous slices of tomato and garnishes them with fresh basil. Simple and good.

As at the original La Tosca, the crowning glory among meat courses at Lakewood Ranch is Di Costanzo’s signature dish, agnello all’abbruzzese ($22.95). This lightly tomato-sauced wonder, upon which Colette’s eye fell immediately, braises to exquisite tenderness a generous, meaty lamb shank and serves it atop an earthy Parmesan risotto with peas and mushrooms. Colette purred as she dispatched it.

The menu offers one of my all-time favorites, too, one I don’t see often enough these days. Tubular cannelloni pasta, properly stuffed and baked, makes me giddy. La Tosca’s version ($13.99) comes to table hot and savory, redolent of Parmesan, Gorgonzola, fontina and Swiss cheeses plus garlic. Just right.

We could have gone the gelato route for dessert and been happy with it, but that wouldn’t have given the kitchen much to do. Instead, Colette went for the tiramisu ($5.99) and I chose the chocolate soufflé ($6.95). The tiramisu is the genuine article, fragrant with espresso and marsala and creamy rich with mascarpone. The soufflé is really a molten chocolate cake, but it’s a good one.

La Tosca

1837 Lakewood Ranch Blvd. (at S.R. 64), Lakewood Ranch

(941) 714-0120

Lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday; dinner 5-10:30 p.m. seven days

V, MC, AMEX, Discover

Handicapped accessible

Ample lot parking


Polo Grill and Bar, chef Tommy Klauber’s latest venture, has moved into the space briefly occupied by the ill-fated Fred’s at Lakewood Ranch. Despite a wait staff that’s stretched a bit thin, Polo Grill is up and running and full of promise.

The main dining room looks much as it did in the space’s previous incarnation: the open kitchen at the back, the glass-walled wine room, well-spaced tables and those quirky, colorful light fixtures. The noise level can rise when the big, high-ceilinged room is full, but the hubbub is convivial, lending the place a pleasant buzz. The bar on the other side of the wine room seems a pretty cheerful place, too. And there are plenty of outdoor tables for fine weather.

The menu can best be described as American bistro in style. Starters run from down-home mini blue crab cakes to Gaucho beef empanadas. The dinner menu spans cultures as well, with Brick House chicken marinated in lemongrass and soy sharing the list with a honking big grilled rib eye accompanied by white truffle Parmesan frites. And I’m pleased to report that the menu offers several tempting sandwiches, too, in case that’s the mood you’re in. It’s always good to have choices.

Colette and I began our evening at table with two winners from the starters list. She chose spicy shrimp rolls ($10), asserted by the rice vinegar-based Vietnamese dipping sauce called nuoc cham and cooled by fresh cucumber and shredded carrot. I went for tuna tartar wonton tacos ($13), crisp little cradles for diced, marinated sashimi-grade fish topped with sakimole, a wonderful twist on guacamole featuring avocado, lemon and lime juice, cilantro and…sake! This recommended first course is an import from Pattigeorge’s on Longboat Key, another Klauber restaurant.

We decided to go the wine-by-the-glass route with both appetizers and main course, Colette choosing first a French sparkler from the varied and well-priced list and then switching to a California zinfandel for the main course. I chose a light, dry German Riesling and stuck with it.

Colette is a fan of osso buco, so she opted for Klauber’s variation on a theme, which stars smoky, fall-off-the-bone, ancho-coffee braised short ribs in place of the traditional veal shanks ($26). Creamy mascarpone polenta was the perfect side dish.

I’m a sucker for scallops ($24) and was delighted to find the pan-roasted beauties with a brown sugar cure at Polo Grill as sweet, tender and firm as anyone could want. The wild mushroom risotto that came along for the ride was just right, too.

Polo Grill and Bar

10670 Boardwalk Loop (just off Main Street), Lakewood Ranch

(941) 782-0899

Lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Saturday; dinner 5-10 p.m. seven days; brunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Sunday

V, MC, AMEX, Discover, Diners Club

Full bar and wine list, many by the glass

Handicapped accessible

Ample lot parking

What I’m Drinking

A highlight of the merry month of May is Cinco de Mayo, the fifth day of the month, when bars by the thousands in this country and a handful of citizens in Mexico celebrate the victory of Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza Seguin over French forces in the Battle of Puebla in 1862.

As St. Patrick’s Day celebrates the Irish and Oktoberfest the Germans, so Cinco de Mayo celebrates the multifaceted cultures of Mexico. It also is a swell excuse to drink tequila, that misunderstood elixir distilled since at least the 16th century from agave tequilana azul, the blue agave, a fleshy succulent native to the sandy soil of the Mexican state of Jalisco.

The best tequilas, in my view, whether fresh or aged, are those made exclusively from the blue agave, rather than being fortified with grain alcohol, as many blanco (white), plata (silver) and oro (gold) tequilas are. The 100 percent agave tequilas are shooter worthy, if that’s your pleasure, but they also make the best mixed drinks, including the undisputed queen of tequila cocktails, the margarita.

Mark Woodruff, executive chef at Two Senoritas on Main Street in Sarasota, has created a variation on the classic he calls The Don. Eschewing false modesty, he also calls it “the best margarita on the entire planet.” Here’s his recipe. You be the judge.

The Don

2 ounces Don Eduardo Añejo (aged) tequila

1 ounce Tuaca (an Italian vanilla-scented liqueur)

1 splash fresh orange juice

1 splash fresh lime juice

4 ounces sweet and sour mix

Combine the ingredients with ice and stir; strain, over fresh ice, into the biggest red wine glass you can lay your hands on.

Good Deal

The Place: Sweet Talk Cafe, 2704 Stickney Point Road, Sarasota (in Gateway Center); closed Monday; (941) 923-1467.

The Fare: Brazilian deli and bakery goodies, with an emphasis on fresh house-made pastries both sweet and savory. Enjoy the latter with coffee for a change of pace.

The Drill: Brazilian soaps and game shows on a big flat-screen TV and friendly people behind the counter, where you order and pick up. Seating in spartan booths and at small tables, the latter disappearing on Wednesday evenings to make room for a band. The savory pastries are our focus here, although the mini eclair I sampled was everything a sweet should be.

The Bottom Line: Here’s how my light lunch (or mid-afternoon snack) with coffee stacked up: $2.45 for a sensational and robust coxinha com catupiry, a pear-shaped dough treat stuffed half-and-half with spiced shredded chicken and catupiry, a Brazilian cream cheese; $1.79 for an empada, a small-in-circumference-but-big-on-flavor pot pie stuffed with shrimp, chicken or hearts of palm; $1 for a trio of pao de queijo, wonderfully light little balls of cheese bread made with manioc flour (I could eat these babies by the pound); $1.59 for an excellent espresso served in a real demitasse on a real saucer with two bite-sized sugar cookies on the side for fun. Grand total: $6.83. Good deal, indeed.

In Season

Chef Judi Gallagher makes dessert impressive with fresh Georgia peaches.

Mid-May to August brings intense heat to Southwest Florida, but it also brings baskets of sweet, fuzzy Georgia peaches from the Macon County line. Peaches, first grown in China almost 4,000 years ago, came with Christopher Columbus to the New World in the form of peach seeds. Those were originally planted in St. Augustine, Fla.; however, the rich clay soil of Georgia produced sweeter nectar, making it the peach capital of our country.

Store fresh peaches and nectarines in a fruit hammock to prevent bruising; once they’re at their peak of ripeness, refrigerate or use them right away. If you freeze these Georgia beauties, peel them first. (Drop in boiling water for 30 seconds and remove to an ice bath for two minutes, and the peel will almost fall off.) I add a simple syrup or white grape juice to the peeled peaches before filling a Ziploc freezer bag; this protects them from freezer burn and browning.

While a fresh peach pie or cobbler gets my vote for best dessert, this simple but delicious recipe for oven-baked peach halves filled with chocolate, mascarpone and amaretti cookies makes a great impression on guests.

4 fresh, ripe peaches, halved and pitted

1 egg

1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder

1 tablespoon sugar

8 amaretti cookies, crumbled

½ cup mascarpone cheese

1-2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar

½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Scrape a tablespoon of pulp from the inside of each peach half. Dice the pulp. Beat the egg and add the diced pulp, cocoa powder, sugar and crumbled cookies. Place the peach halves open side up on a baking sheet. Spoon the mixture into the peaches and bake at 350 degrees for about 25 minutes.

In a separate bowl, mix the mascarpone cheese, vanilla extract and confectioners’ sugar until soft and creamy. Place a dollop on each peach and put back into the oven for 2 minutes. Serve immediately.

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