This year, for Mothers’ Day my family and I ventured to a 12:30 lunch reservation at Tuscan Kitchen in Portsmouth. Tuscan Kitchen in Portsmouth is located where the old movie theater used to be in the Bowl-O-Rama plaza. The sprawling building has morphed from a theater into a Tuscan-themed restaurant with decor that rivals the Olive Garden or Macaroni Grill. Tuscan Kitchen is the mastermind of Tuscan Brands, a restaurant and specialty grocer with their first location in Salem, NH and another location in Burlington, MA. Tuscan Brands is the creation of Joe Faro, who got his start in the world of Italian food with his company Josephs’ Pasta; a homemade pasta and sauce brand based out of Haverhill, MA.
On this infamous dining day, the restaurant was a bustling scene of servers dressed in black vests, food runners carrying steaming plates of pasta, cocktails being shaken, and tables being cleared. The restaurant reminded me of the glory days of the chain restaurant. In a strange and ironically-upscale way Tuscan Kitchen was like Bugaboo Creek during the glory days; where on any given evening rows of families could be seen holding vibrating pagers waiting for their blooming onion, or sizzling plate of fajitas, while sipping bottomless Mountain Dew.
We made our reservation two weeks in advance for the extremely popular restaurant holiday; when we arrived, we were sat promptly at a round booth. I did ask for a quiet table when I made my reservation, but one look around showed there is no quiet spot at Tuscan Kitchen.
I ordered a Peach Bellini, and while I fawned over their extensive Italian cocktail menu and incredible wine list, our server brought us a bread basket. Oprah would have lost it. This particular bread basket featured warm focaccia and rustic Italian bread served with a small dish of Italian imported olive oil, balsamic vinegar, warm olives, and a small bit of tomato puree. Best thing? When the bread basket is empty, they bring another one, before you even ask! Our table agreed- the bread was out of this world.
To start, we began with the Polpo; an octopus dish in a spicy Fra Diavolo sauce. We had high hopes for the octopus due to our disappointment with Torosos’ (see review here), version of the often chewy sea creature. This Polpo was thinly cut and cooked until tender, but not mushy, and served over crusty rustic bread with a slightly spicy and smoky red sauce. The octopus nearly melted in my mouth and the sauce added a bright spice mellowing out the rich taste of the octopus. The amount of bread was a little bit too much for the dish, and somewhat overshadowed the octopus.
Our table ordered a wide array of dishes that we all shared. We had the Fichi “Pizze” which turned out to be the largest item on the table. Black Mission figs, Prosciutto di Parma, house-made burrata, and rosemary covered the thin and slightly salty flatbread. I thought the pizze was a little heavy on the figs, and the burrata seemed much more like mozzarella.
We ordered a small portion of Rigatoni alla Bolognese. The pasta had that perfect bite homemade pasta should have, but the bolognese sauce was thinner than usual. I’m used to a thicker sauce with carrots and other vegetables finely diced into the dish; this one was lacking those components and seemed almost too thin and watery. The half portion size was great for a lunch, I would recommend the full portion for dinner.
The Gnocchi Carbonara proved to be a decadent delight, ricotta filled gnocchi in a rich cream sauce with small pieces of crispy pancetta offered an indulgent take on the classic Italian dish. Frisee over the top along with fresh peas added a bite that broke up the smoky, cheesy sauce. My only criticism was the soft, almost mushy, texture of the gnocchi I think these little pillows could be more toothsome for such a rich sauce.
The Polpettoni was one huge veal, beef, and pork meatball in a rich dark tomato sauce topped with an herbed ricotta. The dollop of ricotta was the size of a scoop of ice cream and this tomato sauce proved to be thicker than the bolognese. The meatball was light as air, with hints of garlic and oregano; this is an appetizer portion that can be enjoyed as a full meal along with crusty bread.
A caesar salad proved to be standard fare with parmesan croutons instead of the classic bread-based crouton. Dessert at Tuscan Kitchen is truly out of this world. Salted Vanilla Gelato topped with freshly brewed espresso, a decadent creme brûlée, and an out of this world cannoli trio featuring classic cannoli, pistachio cannoli, and a hazelnut cannoli. Unbelievable. I ordered a small digestif of Limoncello and it came to me served in a snifter with ice; what a pour!
Perhaps it was the busy vibe, the decadent food, the lavish dessert, or my extremely large pour of Limoncello, but I left Tuscan Kitchen feeling like I had just experienced a road race, hard workout, or long day at work. That Sunday, my nap was much longer than usual.
Tuscan Kitchen is ideal for an anniversary or graduation celebration with a large group of people who prefer Italian food, I think even the pickiest eater can find something on this menu. On Sunday evenings, Tuscan Kitchen offers Sunday Pranzo with a Salumi e Formaggi plate, Nonna Carmela’s Sunday Service featuring pasta with sausage and meatballs, and a Spit Roasted Sirloin along with a selection of desserts -this sounds like a great group night out.
I am looking forward to the opening of Tuscan Market in June. Tuscan Brands is well known for their imported Italian items including first-pressed extra-virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, Prosciutto di Parma, and other favorites. In house, Tuscan Kitchen makes their own burrata, ricotta, mozzarella, pasta, and of course, bread.
Tuscan Kitchen is located at 581 Lafayette Road, Portsmouth NH. Hours: Sunday-Tuesday 11:30am- 9:00 pm
Wednesday-Saturday 11:30am – 10:00pm
For more information: http://www.tuscanbrands.com/