Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Tuscan vegetable soup at Toscano in Harvard Square. (Photo: Tom Meek)

When folks think of fine Italian in Harvard Square it’s often haute destinations Giulia (where lines form at 4:30 p.m., an hour before opening) or Bar Enza (which took over the space in The Charles Hotel that was Giulia’s sister eatery, Benedetto). In that conversation too is Toscano, the quiet northern Italian eatery near the A.R.T.  that often gets overlooked as too buttoned-down. The Brattle Street trattoria opened in 2013, replacing Café of India to become sibling to a Tuscan-inspired destination open on Charles Street in Boston’s Beacon Hill for nearly 40 years. The Brattle Street perch has an open but cozy old-Europe vibe – it doesn’t have outdoor dining per se, but the front of the restaurant opens up onto the street, giving it a street-cafe feel. (Even more so now that the street has become narrowed and calmed by the installation of a bidirectional bike lane along the avenue.)

Toscano’s is open for lunch and dinner, and one of my favorite late-lunch spots. (Semolina Kitchen & Bar in Medford is on that list too.) It has a solid red sangria and a summer menu – prix fixe, with three courses – that you can poach appetizers and secondis off of for a nosh. That menu rotates some and recycles a few standbys from the regular menu, which has solid-quality wood-fired pizzas and pastas as well as offerings from the land and sea. You can get half-order pastas, but I find one or two appetizers make for good lunch or a lighter dinner.

I’m fond of Toscano’s hearty, rib-sticking pasta e fagioli and tomato bread soup, but for the summer my go-to is the minestrone, a Tuscan-style vegetable soup that is not like most minestrones, but spicy, spare on the beans and heavy on the tomato. It’s a generous serving, and when you add the warmed rolls and fresh olive oil that come on the house, it’s a perfect warm-weather snack. Then there’s the burrata and fresh mozzarella apps with speck or prosciutto (the caprese style is on the regular menu; the cured-meat versions come as specials), fresh, rich and creamy indulgences that come with a balsamic drizzle on the side. Try also the wood-grilled shrimp (gamberoni alla brace), which are large and succulent and feel like eating mini lobster tails. Another win is the super-lean homemade pork sausage, which you can get as an appetizer (salsicce e rapine), add as a side to your plate or have cut up and put into your soups. 

That’s a great selling point abut Toscano’s: If you want to customize anything – let’s say you want chicken parm, which is not on the menu – just ask and they’ll likely do it. I’ve never had a request denied, and the waitstaff is friendly and attentive. I often order the sausage with a side of steamed white beans (fagioli) in a tomato sauce. It’s nowhere on the menu; I just made it up on a whim and it appeared before me.

If you go for dinner, know that the classic pastas (clams linguini, spaghetti pomodoro) and risottos (sausage, seafood or the one I really dig, mushroom) are belly-filling meals that will have you leaving with a take-home bag. You can also get wood-grilled steaks (T-bone, filet mignon) and swordfish, as well as traditional veal dishes (scaloppine, Milanese). The big plate I get regular hankerings for is the pollo castellana, a sautéed chicken breast with prosciutto and mushrooms in a white wine sauce that is tender, flavorful and satiating without being heavy. 

Besides the summer menu, a good reason to visit Toscano’s during the warmer month is that the square is quiet and calm – students, alumni and parents are a far-off, fall thing, making this the time of year residents venture forth to partake at places normally crowded, when they can just sit down and spread out and enjoy the veranda atmosphere. Next up, I’m thinking about adding prosciutto to that burrata caprese. 

Toscano (52 Brattle St., Harvard Square)

Cambridge writer Tom Meek’s reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.