127 Bridgeton Pike
Forget flowers and perfume and the first day of spring. For my money, there is simply no aroma more comforting, more evocative, than a pizza baking in a brick oven. While so many other smells have the potential to grow cloying after a while, to tire us out and make us want to leave the room, the aroma of baking pizza is an all-the-time love affair. The smoke of the wood, the toastiness of the dough, the higher-toned note of the garlic and onions in the sauce: These say home and comfort like little else can.
Much to Toscana’s advantage, this is the first thing guests are likely to notice walking into the stage-set space in its anchored location within a shopping center in Mullica Hill. Combine that with the carefully edited décor—stone-looking floors, as if you’re in a piazza in Italy; Old World knickknacks throughout—and the immediate impression is one of comfort and familiarity.
It’s a theme that runs throughout a meal here. And even if the food rarely seems to elicit a jolt of excitement, it nonetheless succeeds in achieving its apparent goal: to provide familiar, satisfying Italian food in a friendly and welcoming environment.
Clams brodetto hit all the necessary notes—the white wine garlic sauce thickened with generous additions of butter and seasoned with a confident hand. Even if the shaved fennel listed on the menu was difficult to discern in the dish itself, the jewel-like clams didn’t suffer from it, and were still admirably framed.
Maccheroni al forno—our waitress accurately described it as essentially a heftier version of baked ziti—was enough for a dinner and two lunches over the following days. You could also order one heaping bowl for the kids and have them split it; they still won’t finish it all. (It should be noted that Toscana is a uniquely family friendly spot; the staff couldn’t be kinder with children, offering crayons and smiles as needed.)
As for that pasta, the waitress was right. Strung together with infinite cables of melty cheese, this meaty, filling dish was as warming as your mother’s Sunday gravy. What it lacked in intrinsic excitement—the sauce perhaps a touch too sweet, the meat highly seasoned yet somehow less than enthralling—it made up for in gusto. Bring a bottle of Barbera or Montepulciano d’Abruzzo expressly for this one. It’s worth popping the cork for.
Toscana’s barbecue pizza was far more promising in theory than in execution. The components themselves were well-considered (leeks, red onions, smoked mozzarella, barbecue chicken), but the barbecue sauce itself was too sweet. It made eating more than a piece or two difficult. The Tuscan white bean soup was uninspired, the beans a bit too soft, the broth tinged with an odd metallic flavor. It wasn’t bad, but it certainly wasn’t terribly interesting, either.
Desserts, however, bring things back to where they should be. (Although I’ve never understood the allure of the dessert tray, especially if the selections have been sitting there long enough to have lost their vibrancy. Air-yellowed pastry doesn’t make me hungry.) Fortunately, the fresh versions that were brought out for our eating fared far better. Chocolate fudge cake, with its hint of espresso-like bitterness, was a balanced, compulsively forkable treat. Berries and cream—more a zabaglione, really—was a refreshing, complex achievement.
Toscana, then, accomplishes what it seems to set out to do. Trust your nose and follow that oven smell. There’s comfort in the familiar, and this Italian standard offers plenty of those pleasures.
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 1 (April, 2012).
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