Hard to believe now, but back when the developer proposing to build The Marketplace on Ming Avenue announced his plans, nearby neighbors organized protests. Like good citizens can in our democracy, they stepped forward and were able through news stories to at the least get the developer to sell the shopping center to the public. I remember they said the place would look like Georgetown.
This is where Lloyd Bentsen steps in and says, “I served with Georgetown. I knew Georgetown. Georgetown was a friend of mind. Marketplace, you’re no Georgetown.” Not at least if Friday night isn’t marked by wandering bands of seventh-graders who have few other places to go on a weekend night. To be fair, there is a squadron of security guards there to keep order and, on a recent weekend visit, we counted few wandering adolescents. And though businesses have come and gone over the years, the beacon of class and dignity that has been a constant in the shopping center is Mama Tosca’s Ristorante Italiano, tucked away in the far west corner since 2001. As stores and other restaurants have come and gone, Mama Tosca’s has persevered. And I tell you, the old girl after 35 years at two different locations still has it going on.
We stopped by recently for a checkup, and the menu seems more streamlined than the last time we devoted a whole column to the restaurant five years ago. Their awesome rack of lamb is now with the steaks and chateaubriand. Even with fewer choices, there are so many great entrees we’ve enjoyed in the past and can still recommend: the filet mignon with either the garlic pepper or gorgonzola sauce ($39), the shrimp scampi ($29), all five veal choices — now that we’ve finally sampled them all — the chicken piccata, chicken sun-dried tomato or al prosciutto (all $23), the gnocchi with three different sauces ($20) and the lasagna.
On this visit, we completed our veal dance card by ordering the veal scaloppini ($29), while my companion selected the ravioli a la Genovese ($22). We were distracted by the nightly specials, which in our experience is where some real artistry is exhibited, but we were leery of writing about something that might be gone by the time our readers can sample it. The sea bass on our visits has usually been expertly prepared, and the nightly special of salmon with artichoke hearts almost won us over.
Let’s start with the veal. All the versions here on our visits are thin, tender cutlets prepared perfectly. This version is heavy on veggies (onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, parsley) along with capers and some Marsala. It was presented with about 10 (I counted them) penne tubes and some steamed green beans, broccoli, carrot and zucchini strips. I’m sure it wasn’t healthy, but it sure seemed like it with the spare portion of pasta. I also worry now that foie gras has been deemed illegal in California restaurants if the day is coming when veal is verboten on our tables. I’m aware of the ethical issues involved in the raising of the animal to produce that meat, but there is nothing that tastes like it and I stifle my conscience when that craving must be satiated.
My companion’s ravioli was filled with ricotta cheese and served in a brown meat sauce with carrots and peas sprinkled on top. The veggies inspired a debate: Were these fresh or frozen?The peas didn't seem fresh, but the carrots had a sturdier texture than what passed for weeknight veggies when we were growing up. The cheese-filled pockets were perfectly al dente and the meat sauce was one we’ve enjoyed for decades, the softest ground beef mixed in with tomatoes. It had slow-cooked written all over it.
The dessert tray is another strength with about half the selections (tiramisu, zabaglione and lemon torte) made on premises. I’ve enjoyed zabaglione all over the world and never had better than the soft version served here, though my companion thought it more soupy than we’ve had in the past.
Our waitress was charming and efficient and the subdued lighting of the atmosphere still makes it a perfect place for either a romantic dinner or a night out with friends. When we visited it was about three-quarters full so reservations would be wise, especially if you want to eat outdoors on the patio. Their website calls it “relaxed elegance,” and that phrase is so accurate I wished I had written it.
Mama Tosca’s Ristorante Italiano can be recommended for a fine dining experience.