Even if you haven't been by in a while, the aroma greeting you at Toscana Cafe is instantly familiar. Mmm, focaccia!
Baked that morning, its rosemary-yeasty scent still strong by evening, the bread is one of many from-scratch foods that have made Daniele Catalani's Italian takeout a go-to in the near-Northeast neighborhood.
Catalani opened the eatery a year ago in a converted townhouse just east of Union Station. His setup is unconventional: You enter via the kitchen, place your order with whoever is standing by (often, it's a cook making eye contact), then watch the meal come together.
About a dozen seats fill the second floor, but most orders get rushed out the door (in well-insulated plastic carryalls). Which is just how Catalani planned it: "At lunchtime the place is more like a deli. I wanted to drive that concept through to dinner. I wanted people who don't have time to sit down to have an option."
The options are abundant, beginning with meat- and fish-based courses including chicken saltimbocca and grilled salmon ($9.50-$10). Ten-inch pizzas come in three styles: margherita ($10), formaggi ($11) and New York ($12). Daily specials present themselves via chalkboard, as do sandwiches prepared on house-made ciabatta.
Fresh pasta is always a pleaser. We recently chose gnocchi with pesto and sun-dried tomatoes ($8.50) and fettuccine with clams ($8.50). The pungent pesto called to mind a long-ago lunch on a Genoa terrace. And the sweet little clams, still in their shells? Catalani punches them up with crushed red pepper and garlic. Penne with broccoli rabe and spicy sausage ($9) is another favorite.
Salads are a requisite: Try the sweet potato with scallions, figs and balsamic vinaigrette ($6) or the corn-orzo combo with cucumbers, peppers and passion fruit dressing ($6). Catalani grills the corn, giving the dish creamy, earthy dimensions.
If you happen by the patio on Saturdays, you might see the chef spit-roasting a pig for porchetta. That's next on our list of offerings to try.
Toscana is a "family place," an employee told us recently. "People feel at home here."
Indeed. Much as we might fantasize about walking into the house to the scent of fresh focaccia - well, taking home Toscana's brown bag of flatbread (included with each purchase) more than suffices.
- Kristen Hinman, Sept. 1, 2010 (Good to Go column)
Tom Sietsema wrote about Toscana Cafe for a September 2009 First Bite column.
A fresh place to eat in the shadow of Union Station? No sooner does a reader share the word ("I've lunched there three days in a row!") than a friend and I hop in a cab and join the line snaking outside the sunny yellow, two-story Toscana Cafe on a recent workday.
A gelato cart parked near some tables on the patio is a good omen. Scanning the menu on the wall inside, we are also pleased to see "homemade" lasagna and pizza offered by the slice. We order both, throw in a sandwich and a plastic cup of tiramisu, pay for the spread at a cash register and head outside to soak up some afternoon rays and verify my tipster's rave.
The soft brick of lasagna is soupy but also rich with ground beef and bechamel sauce. The vegetable pizza scattered with onions, zucchini and tomato is thin, crisp and respectable. Not counting its ciabatta roll, our sandwich choice, pulled roast pork with sweet coleslaw, waves more of an American flag. As sated as we become, we nearly finish the soothing coffee-and-chocolate-flavored dessert.
The man behind those recipes is Daniele Catalani, 30, who came to Washington from Florence 10 years ago to work for chef Roberto Donna at Galileo. Over the course of six years, Catalani worked his way up from line cook for the main dining room to co-chef in Donna's exclusive restaurant-within-a-restaurant, Il Laboratorio. When the Italian destination closed in 2006, Catalani started a catering company, which lives on in the same building as Toscana. He also helped open Extra Virgin in Arlington four years ago.
For the moment, the eatery serves lunch weekdays and a four-course dinner ($28-$35) Mondays through Saturdays in a small upstairs dining room. A more extensive a la carte menu is on the horizon; as he eases in, Catalani says, he wants to keep the business simple. He is, as he describes it, not just one of the cooks and a manager, but "a dishwasher and the sommelier," too.
(Sept. 2, 2009)