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Toscano Ristorante
136 Farnsworth Avenue
Bordentown, Burlington County, New Jersey
(609) 291-0291

By The Artful Diner
Special to nj.com
April 9, 2007

The site at 136 Farnsworth Avenue in historic Bordentown has been home to a number of restaurants over the years. In most recent memory, Conrad's majored in excellent progressive American fare, while Conti's Little Flower served up Italian cuisine in prodigious proportions. The current resident, Toscano Ristorante, which made its debut in April 2006, pretty much follows in Conti's train, offering up bountiful portions of lusty Italian fare.

The establishment's attractive interior -- cozy diminutive bar at the entrance and bi-level dining area punctuated by soft, subdued lighting, faux candles, and crisp white napery -- has always beckoned warmly. The cuisine, however, is somewhat problematic.

The menu reads well, arresting the eye with a number of apparently appealing choices; but proper execution is sometimes lacking. And, as is often the case, the shortcomings are infinitely more endemic to the main courses than they are the starters...

And my veal Sorrentino ($21.95) -- medallions topped with grilled eggplant, prosciutto, roasted red peppers, mozzarella cheese, and portobello Marsala sauce -- is a case in point. The three veal medallions are huge, obviously processed, and exhibit a strange consistency, a cross between softened Styrofoam and wet cardboard. The Marsala sauce is rather insipid, and the overall presentation is famine for the eye as well as the palate.

In a somewhat similar vein, the tilapia and crab ($23.95) is quite good; but the two constituents are drowned beneath a rather viscous pinot grigio sauce awash with tomato and asparagus. The entire affair is surrounded by an armada of cold, undercooked broccoli florets.

Of the entrées sampled, the chicken Francese ($16.95) is clearly a standout. Once again, the portion size is exceedingly large, but the chicken itself is moist and tender, and the sherry-lemon sauce a very good match. The accompanying mound of red bliss mashed potatoes is also quite good. Once again, however, several undercooked broccoli florets add a nullifying note.

Among the pastas, the linguine puttanesca ($15.95) -- replete with sautéed olives, mushrooms, capers, basil, plum tomatoes, and white wine sauce -- is incredibly salty, even without the benefit of anchovies. And the sauce itself appears to be suffering from a tad too much thickener.

Appetizers do demonstrate a bit more finesse than the entrées, though not a great deal. The best of the lot, in my opinion, is a nightly special of stuffed onion rings ($8.95). Yes, I know it sounds like a bizarre concoction, but the presentation was the hit of the evening. Crisp onion rings were arranged in the shape of a tower and filled with peppery fresh baby arugula, chopped tomatoes, and prosciutto and splashed with a thoroughly enticing sherry vinaigrette. The Italian egg rolls ($8.95), on the other hand, were not nearly so successful. The stuffing of sausage, broccoli rabe, and provolone was rather bland, and the dressing that anointed the bed-of-beans bruschetta tasted decidedly commercial.

But if you really want to cast your fate -- and weight -- to the winds, consider the special appetizer for two ($14.95). Comprised of asparagus rollatine (spears rolled and baked with prosciutto, mozzarella, and seasoned breadcrumbs), eggplant rollatine (breaded and rolled with ricotta cheese topped with tomato-basil sauce), fried mozzarella, and mushroom caps stuffed with sausage, all the constituents arrive swimming in an incredibly rich, artery-clogging tomato-cheese sauce. A caloric and cholesterol nightmare -- but deliciously addictive.

The house salad (included with the entrée) -- romaine lettuce, chunks of anemic tomato, cucumber, red onion, and balsamic vinaigrette -- is strictly generic... although crumbles of blue cheese ($2.00) spruce up matters considerably.

Among the desserts, most made in-house, the apple cobbler ($5.95) isn't bad but ice cold at the center. If you really have a sweet tooth, however, I'd cast my lot with the very good ricotta cheesecake ($6.95) and wash it down with a jolt of potent espresso ($3.00).

My real bone of contention, though, centers around the service. For starters, I'm not particularly fond of the bartender. She isn't exactly curt, but not terribly friendly either... and she seems to spend most of her time shooting the breeze with the regulars. On one occasion, she took an inordinate amount of time getting around to us; on another, she was completely absent from the bar for a full ten minutes, while we and another customer cooled our heels waiting for her reappearance.

The server on our first visit was a young woman who was both personable and professional. She was right on the money the entire evening. The circumstances surrounding our second sojourn, however, could only be described as bizarre. Our waiter was an older gentleman -- as opposed to other service and bus people who appeared to be in their early twenties -- who put his hand on me on two separate occasions. While explaining the daily specials, he placed his hand on my back and actually began a gentle massage. Sometime later, when he stopped by to ask how we were enjoying our appetizers, he placed his hand on my arm and let it remain there for the entirety of the conversation.

Jeff Weinstein, former restaurant critic of The Village Voice, in his book Learning to Eat, summarized the situation perfectly: "I knew when I set out to talk about this that I would risk sounding like a snob, that I would, in fact, have to convince you that being touched by a waiter was indeed a crime. Take my word for it: it is. Your mother or father may kiss your brow when serving giblets at Thanksgiving, your lover may nuzzle the back of your neck as he or she takes away your plate, but a waiter cannot even so much as place a finger on your person while you are at the restaurant's table. By the way, you, a customer, can't touch a waiter, either."

I will give our server the benefit of a doubt. His intentions were undoubtedly well-meaning, but his actions were totally inappropriate. My wife and I were placed in a completely embarrassing, awkward, and untenable position. In a sense, the restaurant's management, which failed to properly educate its personnel, is as much to blame as our bumbling, without-a-clue waiter.

The moral of the story: "Never fondle a food critic."

Cuisine: Italian
Hours: Lunch: Mon - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.; Dinner: Mon - Thurs, 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 5:00 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.; CLOSED SUNDAY
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Reservations: Recommended on weekends
Parking: Street parking and municipal lots
Alcohol: License
Price: Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Website: www.toscano-ristorante.com

The Artful Diner is an independent, freelance food writer.  His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.

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