Though I admit it’s a bit nonsensical, the notion of fine dining in a shopping mall strikes me as, oxymoronic — a culinary contradiction.
There’s no reason why fine dining shouldn’t exist in a mall. But when we speak of Mall Cuisine, it usually leans toward Hot Dog on a Stick and Panda Express.
Well-prepared risotto and fine Tuscan wines aren’t traditional mall food. But then, these days, malls aren’t traditional either. And thanks to master developer Rick Caruso, malls keep getting finer and finer. With Caruso, at least, the Malling of Southern California is in good hands.
The Commons at Calabasas, in which Toscanova is one of the “anchor” upscale restaurants (King’s Seafood is the other), celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. Since the concept of The Commons is an Umbrian village, the presence of an Italian restaurant with an abundance of outdoor dining, is wholly appropriate, and certainly a lot better than, say, a branch of Sbarro.
There are actually two Toscanovas; the other is in Westfield Century City. But the Century City branch hasn’t a hint of rustic village to it; Westfield is aggressively post-modernist. But The Commons offers lots of country charm; heck, there are even hills in the near distance, giving it the look of Umbria, or Tuscany, if you prefer.
On a warm Saturday night, the entire population of Calabasas seems to be in The Commons — going to the movies, shopping, and of course eating, with a fair split between King’s and Toscanova for the busiest restaurant in the mall.
At Toscanova, the servers are in a state of perpetual motion, barely pausing at each table to take an order, before hustling off to the bar for drinks, and the kitchen for plates of pasta and much, much more. Beginning with a long list of appetizer salads, seafood apps, meat apps, cheeses, cured meats and pizza; you could have quite a meal at Toscanova without ever getting to the pastas or the entrees.
The cooking is classic Italian; if there were shopping malls in Florence, they’d have restaurants like Toscanova. (And give them time — the world is changing. Consider how Covent Garden in London is now a massive shopping mall. British…but a mall nonetheless.)
The 10 thin-crust pizzas are topped with traditional ingredients (ham, rapini, Parma prosciutto, fresh burrata, truffles, with nary a chunk of pineapple or barbecue chicken in sight).
The cheeses and cured meats are almost all from Italy. And even though the Caesar salad is a local invention, served a Toscanova it seems Italian. I mean, Caesar was a Roman emperor after all.
It’s a special pleasure to go to an Italian restaurant with nine proper salads to choose from. Not just some culinary oddity described as an “antipasto salad,” that seems to be a dumpling ground for whatever is sitting around in the kitchen, growing old. But fine salads, made with beets, goat cheese and walnuts; with baby artichokes and frisee; with burrata mozzarella and eggplant. There’s a very good, warm seafood salad over frisee, listed under the “Mare & Terra” set of appetizers, along with grilled octopus with fingerling potatoes; steamed mussels with ciabatta bread; and marinated artichokes with olives.
You can call it a meal at that point. But the baker’s dozen pastas do call out — along with the several extra pastas served as specials. The trio of risotti are properly prepared, with a fine texture, a good bite, and lots of mixed vegetables in the ortolana, wild mushrooms in the funghi, and shrimp in the scampi and asparagus.
And though I don’t usually get a steak in Italian restaurants, the grilled filetto di manzo — filet mignon — was tender to the point of absurdity. I didn’t actually order it. My sister-in-law did. She likes her beef. But we both like our ricotta cheesecake and our tiramisu. But mostly, our cheesecake — cheese and cake, two of everyone’s favorite foods, together in one dish, on a perfect Calabasas evening. With lots of eating, and no shopping.
Heaven for me — though others at my table gazed at the shops with longing. I gazed at the cheesecake the same way. It was enough for me.