Forty-five minutes into the one-hour drive from Baltimore to Cafe Tuscany in Westminster, I'm cursing my editor. With all of the restaurants in Baltimore, why is it necessary to go this far out for Italian food? "This place better be worth it," I said jokingly to my companion as we pulled up in front of the storefront-like facade on Main Street. Later, while walking out the front entrance, I wanted to call my editor and thank him for sending me out for a great dinner.
Opened in 2008, Cafe Tuscany (formerly A Little Bit of Tuscany) has been a realized dream for matriarch Rose Seaman, who on top of her managerial duties finds the time to make all of the fresh pasta that the restaurant serves. Her son, Branden, who is the other co-manager as well as our fleet-footed server, informed us that not only is she a great cook, she is also a great mom. His earnestness was endearing and added to the family vibe Cafe Tuscany exudes.
The recently renovated dining area has a true cafe feel, with the tables set close together so that when it is packed, the eatery feels thriving and raucous. This is in contrast to the outside patio where we sat. Open and breezy, the patio fights the fact that it is a converted corner of a parking lot. Blacktop flooring aside, when night falls it has the potential to be quite romantic. A few lit candles placed in the unused votive lanterns on the walls could do a lot to transform this area into something striking.
Peroni, the Italian lager ($4), is always on tap at Cafe Tuscany and paired nicely with our simple but flavorful appetizers. The fried raviolis ($7) were crispy and filled with a mild Italian sausage that was almost overpowered by a roasted red pepper and garlic sauce. When eaten with a little sauce and a few leaves of the arugula it's served on, the ravioli proved that fried food can be light and appropriate for summer.
The wine my companion drank was a 2007 Terra Al Monte Sauvignon Blanc ($7 per glass) that was citrusy, bright and highlighted the sweetness of the caramelized onion and feta bruschetta ($7). Six slices of crusty, soft and fresh bread were adorned with meltingly caramelized onions and topped with the creamiest feta we've ever had. A splash of extra virgin olive oil and some fresh pepper would have taken this dish into the stratosphere, but otherwise this was a great starter.
Unlike most Italian eateries, the menu at Cafe Tuscany offers only two fresh pasta dishes a night, which change daily. It was explained to us that they try to follow the seasons of Tuscany, and this time of year the Tuscans eat only one portion of pasta a day — and that is mainly at night.
The shrimp piccata ($19), while ridiculously expensive, was incredibly good. Silky homemade pasta was sparingly dressed in a velvety lemon and white-wine butter sauce. This recipe was run into the ground during the 1990s and became a culinary pariah. Here it is un-ironic and delicious, showing why it became popular in the first place. The briny shrimp on top were the best-cooked I've had in a long time, and when mixed with the pasta and sauce tasted of summer. We smiled while we ate it. Be sure to ask for fresh black pepper; it makes the dish sing.
The pizze Margherita ($12.50) was delightfully full of flavor, featuring fresh mozzarella, basil and chopped tomatoes. The crispy crust was good but left us wishing they made their own in house. With a slightly sweet and garlicky sauce, this pizza would have been fantastic with a fresh crust but still managed to be good. A bottle of Morretti La Rossa double malt beer ($4) paired wonderfully with the pizza.
Sitting in the early summer night and listening to the music pumped into the patio, we received the least- enjoyed course of the night. The cannoli ($5) was lackluster and typical. Overly sweet and unnecessarily drizzled with chocolate sauce, it tasted like store-bought cannoli. Café Tuscany should take a page from its pasta book and make this in-house as well.
Traveling an hour for a good meal might not seem like the most appealing idea, but add a great dish of pasta and watch the motivation kick in. While it might not become a restaurant you will want to go to every week if you live in Baltimore, Cafe Tuscany is definitely worth the trip to Westminster.
• Have you been to Cafe Tuscany? Write your own review.
Where: 84 E. Main St., Westminster
Contact: 410-857-4422, http://www.cafetuscanywestminster.com
Open: noon-9 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, noon-11 p.m. Friday, 4 p.m.-11 p.m. Saturday, closed Sunday-Tuesday
Credit Cards: Visa, American Express, MasterCard, Discover Card
[Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭✭; Fair or uneven: ✭✭; Poor: ✭]