The consequence of working in the same region for 30 years: A chef might hop restaurants, but diners will follow and ask for a specific dish the chef made 20 years ago at a restaurant that no longer exists.
That’s why Tom Pantley has taught his kitchen staff the country Italian menu of his restaurant Toscanos Cafe & Wine Bar alongside the long-gone menu from family style Balsanos, a restaurant Pantley owned from 1984-2002, first in Puyallup, then in University Place.
To think those dishes might have been retired forever: Pantley left the business in 2002 to do career soul-searching – selling coffee, doing landscaping, then returning briefly to wait tables at the Lobster Shop, where he started out in the 1980s.
That didn’t last long. In 2004, developers Doug and Sue Walker and Jerry and Kristy Mahan hired Pantley as a consultant for a little wine bar they planned at a business park in the Puyallup valley. They grew the idea into a full-service restaurant, making Pantley chef and part owner. Sue Walker manages the restaurant. It might seem odd that a swanky Italian restaurant with the most impressive wine list in East Pierce is tucked into a business park, but it was supposed to be a little wine bar, remember?
During the summer, the restaurant’s darling 35-seat patio with a showy fireplace provides a wicked view of our beloved mountain – when the cloud cover cooperates – and pastoral glimpses of the Puyallup valley. Inside, diners will find a fishhook-shaped space with a small wine bar in a room that seats 55. Tables are set with linen. It’s a warm space with a stone fireplace flanking one end and custom tile wrapping the other. Tuscan yellow walls and drop lighting set a certain mood day or night.
Toscanos is a restaurant that shrinks or expands with your occasion and budget. It’s accessible for young families with limited dining dollars, and it also is a full-deal destination, offering a ribeye, a martini or bottle from the captain’s wine list and a housemade dessert from Pantley’s wife, Cindy Pantley, who works as pastry chef and restaurant webmaster while keeping a day job. She’s one busy woman, but not too busy to craft my favorite cheesecake in East Pierce.
Tom Pantley describes his cooking as “country Italian.” He learned to cook from his parents, who hosted Sunday dinner parties with rustic Italian on the menu. His compositions use straight-forward, everyday ingredients, yet with lovely plating – dishes have a neat contrast of rustic sophistication. If I were to compare Pantley’s cooking style and presentation, it would be to Bill Trudnowski of Tacoma’s Adriatic Grill, a restaurant in a similarly unexpected location near Tacoma Mall.
During four visits from May through September, I found Toscanos mostly consistent for service and eats, with occasional, but forgivable, missteps.
From the appetizer menu, prosciutto-wrapped cigars of fresh mozzarella ($6.95) were porky-cheesy, sweetened with balsamic syrup. The martini clams ($15.95) came with a cheeky presentation: an enormous martini glass filled with enough clams for two to three, flavored with a hit of vermouth and flanked by an oversized olive spear. The boozy broth soaked nicely into the frequently replenished herb-flecked house bread. Crostini and flatbreads are frequent specials on the fresh sheet, and well done. A spinach and sage crostini summer special ($7.95) was more spinach than sage – salty prosciutto provided backbone. A specials menu starter in late May was the only one true failure of all visits – lemon thyme crab cakes ($13.95) could have been fabulous if the mirepoix wasn’t still crunchy and the cake binder not as pasty.
The pastas always tasted spot on. Pantley uses a pasta with a more durable chew. Bolognese is how I judge an Italian restaurant, and his version with spaghetti ($11.95) was memorable: meaty and rich with a depth found only in a pot that has simmered for hours. A $4.95 surcharge buys velvety meatballs and a slice of fennel-flecked grilled sausage. Get it. A summer special of penne with sausage and peppers ($16.95) was spicy hot and enough for lunch and dinner the next day. Rigatoni and chicken ($16.95, a special) had a citrus sauce that turned sliced fennel into something even fennel haters would dig.
Rock crab carbonara ($17.95) was subdued, rich and eggy, the taste light where the bolognese rumbled. Surf-and-turf brought quibbles. Wild summer salmon ($24.95) tasted purely oceanic, but it arrived a touch overcooked. A perfect 14-ounce ribeye ($27.95) – one of the best steaks I recall in recent months – was sullied by a too-thick disc of steak butter that refused to melt.
A mention to a server brought the response, “It’s supposed to be that way.” He either wasn’t paying attention or he glossed over a diner’s concern. Either way, he should have done better. Otherwise, service was perfect, from the woman who steered us to her favorite pinot grigio, rather than the pricier one (she was right), to a host who doted on a child companion.
About that wine book: Wow. You won’t find a more involved list in East Pierce, but it is not littered with fancy bottles just for the sake of having brag-worthy vintages.
Pantley said his wine philosophy is simple: offer upper-end bottles at a lower-than-expected restaurant markup because big spenders like value, too.
Toscanos Cafe & Wine Bar
Where: 437 29th St. NE, Puyallup, 253-864-8600, toscanospuyallup.com
Serving: Lunch and dinner daily. Weekend reservations recommended.
Wine: A 16-page wine book with a captain’s list of unusual finds. The wine list is 20 percent Italian and the remaining bottles equally split between Washington and California wines.
Kid menu: $4.95-$5.95, cheese and pb&j paninis, spaghetti and mac and cheese. Top pick: A fettuccini alfredo ($5.95) was prepared just like the grownup version – a made-to-order alfredo. Kid and Kidd approved.
Extras: Frequent cooking classes, special wine dinners. Every March, Toscanos hosts Martini Madness with a give-away of hand-painted glasses.