As soon as Maurizio Privilegi was out of earshot, my wife asked, "Do you think he knows who you are?" The owner/chef of Tuscan Blu had just stopped by our table - for the second time that night - and chatted for a few minutes as we were finishing our meals. Complimentary glasses of sparkling wine appeared to accompany the first-rate tiramisu we had ordered.
I can never be sure whether I've been spotted as a restaurant critic, but in this case there was ample evidence to allay my suspicions. Exhibit No. 1: Privilegi visited every table in the dining room, and even ventured out onto the patio, where diners enjoy a romantic view of the sun setting over cobblestone paving and the historic downtown train depot.
I have no way of knowing how many glasses of wine on those other tables were paid for, but I know that plying customers with gratis goodies is common practice in new restaurants. Especially customers who order liberally, as we did, beginning with a bottle of '03 Badia a Coltibuono Sangioveto from Tuscan Blu's strong Italian-leaning wine list.
After starting with some of the tenderest, lightly breaded calamari I've had recently, I succumbed to the temptation of the porterhouse fiorentina that Privilegi had enticingly described the first time he visited our table. At $24.95, the steak was by far the most expensive item on offer (the regular menu tops out at $17.95). Even so, it was a bargain, the steak easily weighing in at the promised 20 ounces, cooked a succulent rare just as I'd ordered it, and served over sautéed spinach.
The lobster bisque wasn't available that night - an especially surprising disappointment early on a Saturday evening. Mussels in a garlicky marinara sauce were savory consolation. By the time my wife had finished (with more than a little help from me) a plate of linguine in white wine pesto with jumbo shrimp, all was forgiven.
The textbook tiramisu was, you might say, cocoa-dusting on the espresso-soaked cake. It's the only house-made dessert at Tuscan Blu, and definitely the way to go.
Hits and misses
On another evening, we dined on the patio, with the occasional Amtrak whistle and freight train rumble providing musical entertainment.
A reprise of the fried calamari proved the first time hadn't been a fluke. Niçoise salad was tasty enough, but the melange of artichokes, black olives, walnuts, cherry tomatoes, red onions and mixed greens didn't remotely resemble a classic niçoise. Evidently, I'm not the only one to notice the discrepancy. The chef plans to change the name to Riviera salad.
Linguine with porcini mushrooms was the only outright dud I encountered either night, and it provided further evidence that my cover hadn't been blown. Surely the chef wouldn't have allowed a dish with dried mushrooms (including a couple of inedibly tough bits of stem) and a severely under salted cream sauce to be delivered to the table of a restaurant critic?
In contrast, lasagna della nonna was the highlight of the meal. Made from Privilegi's mother's recipe with house-made pasta and a blend of beef, veal and sausage from the chef's favorite sausage maker in New York, the dish is truly as soul-satisfying as a mother's love.
A native of Livorno, Privilegi immigrated to New York as a young man to work in his brother's restaurant. He eventually made his way to North Carolina and worked at Caffe Luna from its opening in 1996 until last year, when he left to open his own restaurant.
Fans of Caffe Luna will recognize a number of their favorite dishes, though in some cases the names have been changed. Linguine al pescatore, for instance, has been renamed linguine scoglio but still serves up a bounty of shellfish sautéed in garlic, olive oil and tomato sauce.
The chef is clearly working to put his stamp on the still-evolving menu at his new restaurant, too. And if his menu occasionally ventures outside the restaurant's namesake Tuscany for inspiration, there's no mistaking the source of his accent as he makes the rounds of the dining room with his charming hostess of a wife, Patricia.
Come to think of it, that's another reason Privilegi treats us - and everyone else who dines in his restaurant - like friends. He likes people as much as he likes to cook.