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dining out

Toscano brings Italian food to Harvard Square

The bistecca Fiorentina at Toscano is 22 ounces of aged T-bone served with potatoes and spinach.

john tlumacki/globe staff

The bistecca Fiorentina at Toscano is 22 ounces of aged T-bone served with potatoes and spinach.

Toscano opened in Harvard Square at the end of March, a second branch of the Beacon Hill restaurant with which it shares a name. The Brattle Street spot was for years scented with garlic naan and tandoori chicken as Cafe of India; now pasta and grilled meats take their place. And a restaurant that was previously often empty is now busy all the time. The right concept has found the right space.

It is surprising there wasn’t a Toscano, or something very much like it, already in Harvard Square. Between casual, pizza-oriented spots (Cambridge 1, Bertucci’s) and upscale interpretations of Italian cuisine (Rialto), there is a big niche to fill. Traditional Italian restaurants don’t open at the rate they did a few years ago, but when they do, people flock to them.

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No wonder. Toscano’s menu is a crowd-pleaser — snacks and salumi for the barflies, good pasta and risotto options for the vegetarians, meat and potatoes for the cautious, a wine list that lets one flatter a guest of honor without being ostentatious. The restaurant works equally well for faculty dinners, business lunches, family occasions, and after-work outings. And it looks great, with brick walls, dark wood floors and ornate paneling, white tablecloths in the dining room, and a spacious bar area. Passersby are compelled in by the view through the open corner windows.

On a recent night, walking by the bar, I spot an old friend, who flashes a surreptitious thumbs up with a grin. I’m glad to see she’s happy. My previous visit to Toscano had its highs and lows — a long wait for water, mediocre bread, indifferent service, and food that often needed more. More garlic for a special of artichokes. More salt for the house-made sausage with white beans and tomato. More garlic and more salt for spinach and ricotta ravioli with shrimp. More moisture for the dry tiramisu, and more baking time for the apricot tart.

And yet, much had been right with the meal. There was the perfect peach Bellini and the quartino of crisp, cold rose. There was the antipasto of ripe figs and thin-sliced salami, the fresh, sweet fruit just right with the spicy, oily meat. There was the mushroom risotto, grains still bearing some bite, so rich and earthy and fragrant it was hard to stop eating. There was the branzino, fish simply prepared with a sauce of garlic, lemon, white wine, and rosemary.

So the verdict is out. We take our seats. Upon ordering cocktails, we are asked for ID; our apologetic, attentive waiter won’t serve us without one. This would be fine if the policy were enforced all the time, but it wasn’t in place on the night of the Bellini and rose. More inconsistency.

But then we are eating calamari in gratella, or grilled squid, a dish so clean and pure there’s no room for error. And there isn’t any. The squid tastes fresh as can be, tender and not the least bit chewy, served over greens with lemon and mustard sauce.

Meatballs are a tender mix of veal, beef, and pork, with great flavor, but the centers are lukewarm. Margherita pizza is a benchmark of an Italian restaurant’s pies, in much the same way a roast chicken lets one take the measure of a bistro. Toscano’s crust is doughy and undercooked, the mozzarella melted until it is lost in the sauce, which is made with too much tomato paste. We pack it up to bring home to the kiddies.

Rigatoni is served alla Norcina — with ground sausage, cream, and truffles. The kitchen hits al dente on the head, with the pasta wonderfully chewy. But there is only a smattering of ground sausage, barely enough to taste, and the truffle is strong in a way that suggests flavored oil.

JOHN TLUMACKI/GLOBE STAFF

The calamari in gratella. or grilled squid, is served over greens with lemon and mustard sauce.

Osso buco features massive veal shanks with mild flavor; what stands out on the plate is the saffron risotto on the side, golden-hued, cozy, and, again, cooked just right. On the other hand, the bistecca Fiorentina is everything a steak should be: an aged, 22-ounce T-bone grilled to a perfect medium-rare, with incredible flavor, served with potatoes and spinach. It’s the best restaurant steak I’ve had in recent memory.

Dessert is middle-of-the-road mixed berries at the height of strawberry season, served with runny zabaglione, and blood orange sorbet that tastes faintly of freezer. Good thing L. A. Burdick is right next door.

Partners Richard Cacciagrani and Andrew D’Alessandro revitalized the Boston branch of Toscano when they took it over seven years ago. Executive chef Samuel Gomez now oversees both restaurants, with chef de cuisine Cesar Gaviria in place in Cambridge. The clientele at both restaurants is similar, says Cacciagrani by phone, as are the menus. Even in its weaker moments, Toscano is a vibrant spot that rounds out Harvard Square’s restaurant scene. At its best, it reminds one why Italian — and specifically Tuscan — fare is eternally popular. Restaurateurs take note: There are plenty of area neighborhoods where this niche goes unfilled.

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.
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