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Sunday, January 4, 2004

Italian in far east

Posted on Sun, Jan 4, 2004 at 4:00 AM

While on the way to Toscana at Avalon Park, make sure you have a cell phone handy. Because, aside from enjoying a pleasant conversation with the nice folks in the restaurant, it is unbelievably easy to get lost in the wilds of east Orlando. And if you're like me, you'll probably pick the wrong entrance into the burgeoning development and end up driving through eerily half-constructed neighborhoods.

The part of "town" that Toscana inhabits is a more welcoming place -- once you find it. In a residential/business center along the lines of downtown Celebration, the restaurant lives under the clock tower, and the relatively small but comfortable space has an upscale air of earth tones and gold d?cor. I fully expected the menu's prices to reflect the atmosphere and was pleasantly surprised.

Staff is attentive and involved, as in the case of several dishes prepared tableside, such as the Caesar salad ($6.50 per person) with real anchovies, crisp greens and a definite flair for wrist-tossing. Steak tartare ($9.95) is uncooked ground beef folded meticulously with egg, onions and lovely little capers. My choice among the appetizers, the Prince Edward Island mussels ($6.75), was a bit unusual, sautéed in red-pepper-seasoned butter, so the bowl is empty of the accustomed broth. At first offering, the mussels were unappetizingly undercooked. A second try revealed firm shellfish with a rich and somewhat salty taste.

My companion asked me to try her lobster bisque ($5.75), and a sample revealed, under the sweet lobster bits and crab base, a taste that we could only describe as "cream of mushroom soup." While I'm sure nary a can of Campbell's would be found in the kitchen, they've managed to duplicate the flavor.

Entrees fared better; splendidly, in fact. A red snapper almondine ($22.95) brought wonderfully Asian flavors to the flaky white fish, coated in pan-roasted nuts and served with a delightfully un-sweet, chunky mango chutney -- dark and light flavors complementing each other.

Most enjoyable was a relatively simple pasta dish of farfalle, saut&eacurte;ed shrimp and two superlative lobster bits, the butterfly pasta wonderfully al dente and coated in creamy white wine sauce, a delight at every fork ($25.95).

The cordial manager kept us busy before and after dinner with an amuse-bouche of teeny clams in coconut curry, and a smooth and fruity blueberry mousselet. It was these off-menu items that impressed me as much as anything served; if they were experiments, I'd suggest Toscana starts serving them right away. They match the surroundings.

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