Italy, especially Tuscany, has recently captivated the American culinary imagination. Advocates of its simple, rustic recipes have nearly overtaken America's restaurant scene and television screens.
Our culinarily conservative hamlet has stubbornly resisted this trend, but one of our own is blazing a new trail. It leads to Tuscan Sun Market and Deli in Old Colorado City, the creation of chef Becky McCain and partner Lisa Schoettger.
If the restaurant doesn't necessarily feature Tuscany's most prominent recipes, its homey atmosphere and lovingly crafted food are true to the Tuscan spirit. Decorated like an outdoor patio with pale Italian tile floors, ersatz grape vines and twinkling lights hanging from trellises mounted in the ceiling Tuscan Sun offers seating for 23 diners. Knickknacks, framed prints and marble reliefs accessorize the paneled beige and pale pink walls. Plenty of up-lighting completes the look.
No such navigation is required for McCain's food. The rule that the quality of ingredients determines a dish's success or failure holds true at Tuscan Sun, as it does throughout Italy. Extremely good tomatoes, noodles, olive oil and vinegars combine with solid recipes to make for some very good eating.
I can't figure how McCain does it, but the tomatoes she has on hand at this time year are nothing short of miraculous. Sweet, fresh and juicy, they star all over the menu. With big leaves of tender basil, cheeks of soft, rich mozzarella, and rich olive oil, they complete a lovely caprese salad.
The tomatoes chime in loudly on three other excellent salads (all anchored by a zingy, herb-spiked vinaigrette), and form the base of Tuscan Sun's delicious marinara. A recipe McCain described as "pure Pompeii" turns out a slightly chunky, alluringly vivid red sauce with just the right balance of sweetness, acidity and spice.
Equally superb dry pasta ensures the tomatoes don't go to waste. McCain just returned from Italy, having identified an excellent pasta supplier. Boiled to perfection, each noodle retains its toothsomeness, offering excellent texture and flavor in combination with the marinara and McCain's East Coast Italian-American ragu. Dark, rich and earthy, it's built around big bits of beef, bison, Italian sausage, mushrooms and fennel.
When the ingredients don't measure up, Tuscan Sun runs into trouble. Bread seems to be the biggest chink in the armor. Served in baskets, it's too soft for the weight of the food and for the viscosity of the olive oil and aged balsamic served with it.
Although McCain vouches for its authenticity, the bread used for the panini doesn't seem right, and the sandwiches themselves can suffer from imbalanced ingredients (a tomato and mozzarella version simply overwhelmed by pesto) and poor execution (roast beef turned leathery). Fortunately, the rolls holding handmade meatballs or mixed Italian cold cuts are considerably better, and each of those sandwiches is among the finest of its respective genre in the city.
Service at Tuscan Sun is casual but friendly, and prices range from $4.25 to $6.75 for salads, $5.95 to $8.45 for sandwiches and $9.95 to $12.95 for pastas. There's also an interesting, if small, selection of wines that match the food and don't break the bank ($6/glass). Try the Da Vinci Chianti, 2005.
Though the panini need work, McCain's success in finding great ingredients and coaxing so much goodness from a two-burner stove suggests that Tuscan Sun will shine.