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Like Mama Used to Make

Italian food is not just spaghetti and meatballs anymore


Italian food is probably one of the most popular cuisines. Spaghetti and meatballs is an easy dinner for college students and families alike. Lasagna is a standard casserole dish. Almost everybody eats pizza. But is Italian cuisine really one of the most well-known? As with any other cuisine, Italian food spans a wide variety of dishes. What's traditional in Northern Italy may be quite strange in Sicily.

In the Triangle, unfortunately, we don't have lots of opportunities to experiment with these various styles. Although ethnic populations are growing (more Asian markets, Latino tiendas, etc.), there is still a very small Italian community. "You see pizzerias, but there's definitely not a large Italian community here," says Danielle Rios, co-owner of the recently opened Tosca, an Italian restaurant in the new West Village complex in downtown Durham. "We saw a market for it here. There's just no real good, basic Italian food."

Danielle and her husband, Antonio Rios, own the Blue Corn Cafe on Ninth Street. They decided to open Tosca because Danielle's culinary background is Italian. She wanted to show people that traditional Italian food is basic, simple and fresh. "Once you start getting into spices and froo-froo and dressing up, it's not real Italian. It's not something you'd get on a dish in Italy." In much of Italy, food is peasant-like, reflecting the economic realities of many communities. It's different in the cities, where people have more money to spend on special ingredients. But in the countryside, food is vegetables and pasta and bread.

Americans have accepted the simplicity of Italian food, but they still have their own ideas of what's truly Italian. Danielle faults chain restaurants for this. Restaurants like the Macaroni Grill or the Olive Garden have presented a certain slice of cuisine. It's heavy red and alfredo sauces. "Vinagrette doesn't exist in Italy. You have oil and vinegar, that's it. You don't get any of this 'raspberry vinagrette' because a lot of the people don't have the money like we have to go out and purchase these things."

At Tosca, she wants to present food that reflects more of this basic nature. Still, the food at Tosca isn't all authentic. "We have to change it for the American palate because Americans are not used to what Europeans eat." Antonio jokes, "We've got people who want just plain spaghetti with sauteed shrimp and cream. That's not Italian! But hey, whatever they ask for, we make it."

Even attempting to provide authentic cuisine is difficult. Because the many regions of Italy produce different dishes, what's "authentic" to one person may not be "authentic" to another. For instance, polenta (a cooked cornmeal dish) can vary from soft and almost soupy to thick blocks that can be grilled. Tiramisu ranges from a pudding-like consistency in the North to a cake in the South. "It's all wonderful," says Danielle, "but that's definitely something that's hard when you're serving ethnic food." At Tosca, the dishes represent the cuisine of central to Southern Italy, from Rome and Florence on down.

As a new restaurant, Tosca is trying to cater to a sophisticated palate, which is hard while trying to keep the prices down. For people who want upscale food, simplicity doesn't always work because people aren't always willing to pay for simple meals. A dish of linguine with olive oil and garlic is eaten by Italians a couple of times a week. But would a customer pay to eat that in a restaurant? "If I was authentic, you'd be angry at paying $14.95 for a dish," Danielle says. "So I have to add something into it to make it pretty for you, to make it aesthetically pleasing, or pleasing to your palate."

The initial menu was not very big, as the Rios' tried to see what people wanted. The winter menu will experiment more with food that Danielle wants to present: penne with proscuitto and sauce; eggplant cooked in tomato sauce; polentas; osso bucco.

Equally as important as what Antonio and Danielle cook at Tosca is the philosophy behind their menu. Everything is fresh, planned out, and made to order. The soups, pastas and desserts are made from scratch. Because, as Danielle puts it, "Culture starts at the table in Italy. Your culture is sitting down with your family and eating."

It's about eating and enjoyment, something that we as Americans often forget. And so she wrote that in the menu at Tosca: "This is the way it is in Italy. ... When you come in and sit down at the table, you drop your baggage and you're a part of the family. Whether you're just a friend or a visitor, you're still welcome at my dinner table. You eat, you drink, you enjoy, you love."

Danielle spent many years in Italy, both in Rome and on an olive farm in the region of Puglia. And Antonio has worked in kitchens for the past 12 years, honing his culinary skills at such restaurants as 411 West and Aurora. They hope to share that Italian culture with the Triangle and don't plan on stopping with just regular dining at Tosca. In the fall, they'll be doing a cabaret night at the restaurant and cooking the dishes that they want to prepare--what they like, what they do best, what they think people should be eating. Dishes like a creamy mushroom and asparagus risotto, sauteed zucchini and shrimp with garlic and white wine over pasta, and a lighter eggplant parmesan. And hopefully, if people are receptive to those dishes, Tosca will start offering less Americanized food.

The restaurant is truly a family operation. Danielle's parents (her father came to America when he was 30) have moved to Durham to help start an Italian market at Tosca. They'll be selling fresh pasta, bread and pastries as well as imported items from Italy, such as chocolates, cheese and wine. Aside from Bari Italian Foods in Raleigh, there's not much chance for people to get traditional Italian ingredients in the Triangle. Now, we can drink espresso and eat biscotti at the market's espresso bar. How European. Americans might even learn a little bit about taking a moment and enjoying.


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