By Suzanne Parker
Sometimes we’re so busy trawling our borough’s dining scene for the new and unusual that a conventionally excellent eatery can slip under our radar. Tuscan Hills, in our own nabe, Forest Hills, had escaped our notice for nine years. The time has come to make amends.
Exposed brick and beams, cleverly crafted arches, and an open kitchen lend Tuscan charm to this Queens Boulevard spot. The menu is classic Northern Italian — there are the usual categories of antipasti, pastas and mains, plus 13-inch brick-oven pizzas. For some reason — probably because there are so many — bruschette merits its own category on the menu.
Burrata, the fresh mozzarella with the creamy center, is one of their specialties. The regular menu offers pappa e burrata, with the cheesy goodness melted over bread with tomato sauce. We were fortunate to have timed our meal for a daily special of Tuscan Hills burrata, a dish with the dairy decadence wrapped in tender slices of prosciutto and drizzled with truffle oil. We paired that with an impeccably done classic Caesar salad.
With a whole section of the menu devoted to bruschette, we just had to try one. We settled on gustosa, a conglomeration of roasted eggplant, peppers and smoked mozzarella on sections of hero bread. It was an undeniably toothsome dish, but a little substantial to be treated as a starter. It would’ve made a great lunch.
Of the entrees we tried, one was a dud, and the other a resounding success. To dispense with the former, it was a veal and porcini mushroom dish which was bland to the point of being tasteless, although the veal itself was of admirable quality. Doesn’t matter. Our other dish, Cacciucco — the house specialty, — utterly knocked it out of the park.
Cacciucco is a traditional Livornese fish stew of mixed mollusks, crustaceans, and other things that swim, in a piquant tomato sauce. Here they put their own brilliant spin on it by placing it in a casserole, stretching a thin sheath of pizza dough on top, and baking it in the brick oven. Upon presentation, the waiter lifts the crusty lid and peels it halfway back to expose the marine delicacies therein. This brings what would have been an outstanding fish stew to a whole other level.
The top of the crust remains crispy, while the steam rising from the stew imparts a flavorful sponginess to the underside. The best way to enjoy this dish is to tear off pieces of the top and use them to scoop up the stew, much the same way as Ethiopians use injera bread as their all-purpose utensil.
We could rhapsodize forever about this one, but suffice it to say, it rocked our world. It comes in individual and two-person sizes, but if you order starters, the single is adequate for all but the most voracious diners to share. The two-person size would be enough for at least three.
If we have any regrets, it’s that the Pica al Fondelli which is homemade Montalcino twist fettucine with cinghiale (wild boar) ragout with black olives evaded our notice. We have it on good authority that this is “da bomb.” Cinghiale is so emblematic of Tuscan cuisine that it figures that this should be great. Note to Tuscan Hills management: Find a way to make this dish more conspicuous on the menu.
The Bottom Line
Tuscan Hills is an appealingly appointed place to enjoy classic Northern Italian cuisine. There are plenty of great options on the menu, but don’t pass up the Cacciucco.
Suzanne Parker is the TimesLedger’s restaurant critic and author of “Eating Like Queens: A Guide to Ethnic Dining in America’s Melting Pot, Queens, N.Y.” She can be reached by e-mail at qnsfo