Veteran restaurateur Tony Nomikos has completely transformed the original Cultured Pearl space into his basic and wallet-friendly Tuscan Grill. Everything is new. In the middle of construction, when he told The Foodie that all entrees at the Tuscan Grill would be under $20, he was telling the truth. Given today's escalating food costs, it's not easy to moderate prices and still provide quality and presentation. So far, Tony's doing a pretty good job of both.
As soon as we sat down, warm breadsticks were delivered to the table. They were accompanied by "Italian Butter," a euphemism for olive oil, balsamic vinegar and some spices. The warm bread is then dutifully dipped into the little ramekin of oil and all is well with the world.
On one of our visits, we started with the Fried Ravioli [pictured, right]. This is obviously a commercially prepared frozen appetizer, but many of these (most everybody serves them, trust me) are actually quite good. The crispy little pillows contain a spicy cheese filling and are nicely kicked up with Tuscan's made-from-scratch red sauce (a little chunky and not too sweet, kinda like The Foodie).
One of my accompanying Foodies-at-Arms ordered the Mozzarella Fritti (lightly breaded and fried mozzarella cheese) [pictured, left]. This generous brick of cheese appeared to be breaded and fried on the premises (Joel, correct me if I'm wrong) and was softly enrobed in that rich marinara. At the risk of stirring up the Chronic Complainers, it was delicious. We also ordered the Bruschetta al Pomodoro [pictured, below right]. This was sort of a do-it-yourself affair, which I prefer because a pre-applied tomato mixture can often make the bread soggy as it waits to be served. Thin and cheesy crostini became firm shovels for the fresh, but rather ordinary, chopped tomato topping. Maybe it just needed a little more salt, vinegar or spices to give it personality. That is not to say we didn't finish it all.
On another visit we had the Shrimp and Mussels Fra Diavolo. Fra Diavolo loosly translates to "Brother Devil" and suggests a spicy hot marinara. The tomato and basil sauce was quite good, though The Foodie would have liked it (spicy) hotter. Hey, Tony, how about a tiny ramekin of red pepper flakes for the more adventurous fressers? The Fried Calamari was crispy, salty and cooked to a perfect tooth. Apparently Tony's son and chef, George Nomikos, knows his way around a fryer.
The salad that come with the entrees is served communally. It's kind of fun scooping out your own stuff. Pleasantly plump pepperoncinis, black olives and onions punctuated the fresh greens, and each and every person at the table loved the soft garlic notes of the dressing. Keep that dressing just the way it is, guys.
The Cocktail di Gamberoni (Gamberoni are jumbo prawns, also known as large red shrimp) was quite generous and the big shrimp are impressive [pictured, left]. However, both times we ordered it, the shrimp were somewhat rubbery. These large prawns can sometimes be a little tough, and it's hard to tell if they might have been frozen or if they were cooked too long (or both). The texture needs work.
My go-to dishes when checking out ethnic restaurants always includes the standards. For Italian, I order any of the parms. I have to admit that Tuscan Grill's Pollo Parmigiana [pictured, right] surprised me. The breaded breast of chicken was fried to a professional crispiness and topped with lots of creamy cheese and that darkly savory marinara. The breading was particularly good; in fact, I could even taste it through the sauce. I haven't yet had the veal or the eggplant parms, but one can only hope that they live up to the chicken version. Another star of the Tuscan Grill show is the Crispy Eggplant Pomodoro. Thinly sliced layers of eggplant are each fried to a crispy doneness, stacked and then topped with tomato and fresh mozzarella. Kind of like an eggplant lasagna, but not really.
A couple of months ago, I read about one of Tony's dishes in a brilliantly written column in the Cape Gazette. If memory serves, it's the Fruiti de Mara Paridiso (sauteed shrimp tossed with alfredo-infused fettucini and topped with lumps of crabmeat) [pictured, left]. In fact, it was ordered by none other than one of the columnists right here at RehobothFoodie.com. She had completely wrapped herself in a tarp to preserve her anonymity, but interestingly enough she still managed to eat (and drink). In short, think shrimp fettucini Afredo topped with crab. It was creamy and quite filling. The shrimp were nicely cooked, and they were not stingy with the crabmeat. The Linguini with Clam Sauce [pictured, below right] was also quite good. Lots of wide-open Littlenecks happily cavorted in the white wine and red sauce.
The meatballs [pictured, below left] at Tuscan Grill are quite good, with a perfectly yielding texture and a garlicky taste. Get them from the "Pick Your Pasta" tables at the top of the menu. We ordered it with Cappellini (Angel Hair) Pasta that sported a difficult-to-achieve (with angel hair) al dente finish. Three large meatballs crowned the dish and were bathed in that nice red sauce.
Restaurants are run by humans, and mistakes do sometimes happen. The Foodie is not so much bothered by the mistakes as he is by how they are handled by the staff. The Town Crawler (her voice muffled by that tarp) ordered a cocktail from the bar. For some reason, it was not good. She articulated this to Alexander, our polite and accommodating waiter, and it wasn't even a minute before Tony Ozturk, the bartender and apparently the bar manager, showed up at the table asking what he could do to make it right. A brand new drink quickly appeared (gratis), and she loved it. Stuff happens. It's how you make it go away that counts.
That's Tony pictured below, and his Greek heritage is not totally lost in this sea of marinara and mozzarella. Carnivores should check out the Costolette Di Agnello alla Mediterranean. The lamb chops in garlic lemon olive oil will have you calling "Opa!", though nobody but Tony and George will know what you're talking about.
Tuscan Grill offers nightly specials. The room is open and softly lit. But let me warn you: If you are looking for midtown Manhattan's Becco or one of Mario Batali's wallet-busting pantheons of Italian cookery, this is not for you.
It is, however, a good, basic family restaurant at the beach, serving consistent food at a low price and with a smile. Give it a try and then post your own comments below.
Tuscan Grill is at 19 Wilmington Avenue, about halfway up the ocean block from the boardwalk, on the north side. Check their off-season hours at (302) 226-2201. Click here for a look at their dinner menu. (L., D., Bar) Price range: Moderate.