For several weeks, a merry band of cooks and businessmen have been transforming the former site of Five Guys on Valley Road in Upper Montclair into an oasis of authentic Italian fare.
The result has been Tuscany, a new restaurant with Tuscan gold walls graced with Italian landscape paintings that puts the focus squarely on fresh pasta.
I admit I was a bit skeptical of a lunch menu that includes mostly dishes costing $14 or $16. Indeed, the cheapest item is the Melanzane Toscane, or thinly sliced layers of eggplant with fresh plum tomato sauce, pecorino, and Italian basil, for $10. Another pasta and eggplant dish, Lasagnette Toscana, is priced at $12.
But almost everything else on the lunch menu costs more.
Dinner, of course, is another story, with Rigatoni alla Bolognese priced at $19; Capellini Bosco E Mare priced at $26; and Bistecca Toscana priced at $36.
But I dare say the food was worth the money.
There's no kids menu but I ventured to Tuscany for lunch with my three children anyway. They are older and have a penchant for Italian cooking. We perused the menu from a nice spot by the window. The quick delivery of warm bread, good for dipping into a notably savory herbed olive oil, struck a pleasant chord.
I opted for my usual favorite, Pappardelle al Ragu di Agnello, for $14. The flat wide pasta came out in about 15 or 20 minutes, adorned with a lush ragu containing tender chunks of lamb and topped with a hefty sprinkling of pecorino. It couldn't have been more tasty.
Also delicious was my son's Rigatoni alla Bolognese, also priced at $14. The braised sirloin sauce with celery, carrots, and tomatoes rang out with flavor.
My other son chose Cannelloni — a specialty here. The tubular pasta stuffed with braised short ribs, for $16, was not what he expected. (At least that's what he said.) But he immediately proclaimed it delicious. I had a few bites and, indeed, the meat was so tender it nearly melts in your mouth.
My daughter's nicely shredded Insalata di Caesar for $14 also was appealing, with an abundant coating of dressing. (There was so much salad, we ended up taking some home.)
The restaurant's amiable owner, Valter Cianni, hails from Italy, having come over to the United States in 1980. He proudly notes he's a true, real Italian and not "a want-to-be Italian."
It's no surprise, then, the food is also purely Italian. As the very gracious and attentive waiter noted, the pastas and the sauces are made on-site by inspired cooks that know how to transform fresh ingredients into something spectacular.
Cianni is not new to the restaurant game. He also owns Tuscany Bistro in Tappan, NY and Cafe La Mer in Naples, Fla. He also owned another restaurant called Tuscany Trattoria for 18 years in Westwood before closing it in 2010.
Nice touches at his new Tuscany restaurant in Montclair include the curvy white plates, almost a cross between a plate and a bowl, brought in from California. Also nice is the ample space between tables. In addition, the plentiful supply of parking in the lot behind the restaurant couldn't be more handy.
There were no other customers there during our lunch, but several people popped their heads in to ask for a look at the menu. Many took away a copy of the lengthy takeout menu. On it is everything from Aragosta "Martini," or a lobster, avocado, and mango salad, for $16, to Gnocchi alla Toscana, with fresh pesto, plum tomato, and pecorino, for $18. In addition to pasta, there's also veal, beef, salmon, and chicken on the menu, served a variety of ways.
Will Tuscany succeed? We hope so. As the owners of the nearby Jafajems observed, there really is no other place like it in Upper Montclair. While other parts of town enjoy the likes of Osteria Giotto, this neighborhood's residents have long wanted their own touch of true Italian. Finally, they got it.
What you need to know:
622 Valley Road
BYOB (but Angelbeck's is right across the street)
Open every day for lunch and dinner
Reservations for dinner probably not a bad idea on Fridays and Saturdays.