I have nothing against old people. Some of my favorite people are elderly, and I hope to find myself in that condition one day. But there must be something about Café Toscano that attracts the mature set, because in the course of one dinner, I tally six canes, one walker and countless door-to-door drop-offs. And as far as I can tell, the restaurant doesn't offer a single early-bird special.
What it does provide is soulful Italian food, assembled from first-rate ingredients and served with grace in a gorgeous dining room. That formula is reason enough for young, old and those in the middle to make the journey to Aurora for a meal. In light of today's gas prices, that is no humble tribute.
Co-owner Carl Quagliata has always had a way with Italian food. His benchmark Ristorante Giovanni's has been a triumph for more than 30 years, a rare feat in any business, let alone the chow line. Café Toscano is no Giovanni's - and I say that as a compliment to the former without slighting the latter. There is an easygoing charm to both the food and service that sticks with a diner long after the leftovers have vanished. Meals are judiciously sized and sensibly priced, a refreshing departure from the pervasive more-is-better philosophy.
Suburban restaurants often suffer from amateurish service owing to a shallow talent pool. Despite being located 30 miles from downtown Cleveland, Café Toscano is run like a big-city bistro. Servers, dressed in black from top to toe, glide from kitchen to table, fleet of foot and sure of menu. When the bin of a preferred bottle of wine comes up dry, our server suggests others that might fit the bill. And rather than try and squeeze that bottle onto our crowded two-top, she stashes it behind the bar and tops off our glasses as needed.
When I call ahead to make reservations - a wise move, considering that the dining room seats only 50 - the young voice on the other end of the line issues a warning: "The only table we have at that time is near the door, and it gets a little bit of traffic." I appreciate the advance notice and opt to take my chances. Apart from its general proximity to the front door, the table turns out to be as lovely as any in the room. It becomes even lovelier when graced with a basket of warm ciabatta bread and a deep dish of parmesan-and-herb-infused olive oil.
That bread comes in handy to mop up a vibrant tomato sauce that cradles a mound of steamed mussels and clams ($8). Like all of the restaurant's red sauces, this one is made from Italian San Marzano tomatoes, which many swear are the best around. (Though, in season, why not use fresh?) Alternating strata of fried eggplant slices and rich goat cheese ($9) form elegant little stacks that are as delightful to behold as they are to bite. The sweetness of ripe tomato sauce plays off the cheese's inherent tartness. Café Toscano's calamari ($9) is textbook: crispy coating, tender rings, not a droplet of grease. The sleight of hand in this treatment is a none-too-subtle jolt of heat in the accompanying marinara. No complaints here.
I have to say that the notion of ordering a big ol' plate of pappardelle with wild boar Bolognese ($21) on a hot summer night, as my wife does, seems unsettling. The dish turns out to be hearty, yes, but far from heavy. Impossibly long ribbons of fresh pasta hold up well to the robust sauce. Nutty with a pleasant hint of gaminess, the boar meat offers a welcome departure from the usual beef-pork-veal variety. Bursting with bright citrus, tongue-tingling capers and summery artichoke hearts, the veal piccata ($21) is that pasta's polar opposite. Fork-tender veal scallops are drizzled with a balsamic glaze and sided with perfectly seasoned carrot-potato puree.
The only hiccups we encounter are at lunch, when our prosciutto panini ($8) arrives cold, without a hint of melt to the mozz. Also, the prosciutto is sliced far too thick to enjoy, and the advertised basil chiffonade fails to make an appearance.
Dessert after a generous Italian feast is like that last shot of grappa: You know you shouldn't order it, you enjoy it while it's going down, but you regret it the next morning. Café Toscano's remarkably wispy tiramisu ($7) will save you the regret. Lighter than air and loaded with decadent flavor, it may be the best in town. Better still, it is not served ice-cold, straight out of the fridge. Seems like someone has done this before.
Café Toscano, 215 W. Garfield Rd. (Rt. 82), Aurora, 330.995.2333, Hours: Lunch, 11:00 to 2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday Dinner, 2:30 p.m. to close, Monday-Saturday
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