The idea was to stop in on a quiet Tuesday night and have a casual first taste of Valter Nassi's new restaurant, but I never really believed that would work out. Sure enough, as soon as we walked in (the new entrance is to the east of where old Metropolitan's was) we were enveloped in a red sweater bear hug by the impresario himself. White apron tied over the sweater, white hair flowing back and arms gesturing, Valter led us into his new domain and from then on we were in his care.
Obviously, then: not an anonymous visit. Less than a critic's ideal, but since I've been welcomed by Valter and then served cooled ravioli, I know that recognition is not a guarantee of a good experience. I think most people who have eaten with Valter at Cucina Toscana over the last years have had their ups and downs; I've had lovely, joyful, delicious meals there and I've had some sad ones. I was eager to see what the pro can do in a smaller space and I'm happy to say that our first meal there was excellent. We ate at the bar, where you can enjoy a full dinner or a glass of wine and a some carpaccio or other snack.
Of course, for the most part Valter chose the menu: a small plate of grilled artichoke hearts on the stem, simply drizzled with olive oil, to eat like lollipops. Just right. A plate of exemplary bruschetta, grilled bread rubbed with garlic and topped with diced tomatoes (wonder which hothouse such pretty ones came from this time of year.) A terrific plate of carpaccio, centered by sauteed mushrooms.
(The traditional preparation was also excellent.)
The agnelli salad, a fanatastic tangle of shredded greens and vegetables. But these weren't the same tomatoes we'd seen on the bruschetta. Better no tomato than a pink tomato.
Sheer ravioli, stuffed with spinach just barely bound with ricotta. A scoop of risotto, served right from the pan.
It was all simple, perfectly and freshly cooked. Pastas were plated tableside over just-grated parmigiana-reggiano.
Service was impeccable, although from what I could tell, many in the dining room were Cucina Toscana regulars, Valter fans glad to see their old host back in business, greeting everyone with open arms, striding around the room ordering servers to bring this or that to a table. It's true that there's a kind of feeling–I'm pretty sure it's called brio–only a certain kind of host or hostess can bring to a dining room; in many of today's restaurants, that spark is missing
I don't know if our actual food would have been as good if we had chosen if ourselves from the menu. There are so many choices it would be too easy to end up with an overcomplicated concoction kind of dish. In fact, the menu should be cut by half or even two thirds.
My advice: Keep it simple, Valter. The foods of your childhood Tuscany are simple and the best things I've had in any of your restaurants were simple. Let the flamboyance of your restaurant be in your own personality. It's the best garnish a meal could have, and there's nothing else remotely like it in Utah.