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Toscani Pizzeria
**
Out of a possible five
$$

Much has changed since last visit to Toscani

It looked as if the place hadn’t changed much since I fell in love with it shortly after it opened six years ago.

Toscani Pizzeria on West Wayne Street still had that pleasant, sort of bistro feel to it, and the old favorites – hand-pinched sausage pizza, the little Saccotino pasta purses and The Hugo Sandwich – are still on the menu.

But some things have changed about Toscani. Owners Mike and Julie Harris used to be staples in the downtown eatery, but they were MIA during my most recent visits and, honestly, this one-time regular can’t recall the last time he saw either of them in there.

And with them not there, the attention to detail was also MIA. During both of my recent visits, the service was depressing, and the employees didn’t mince words about the lack of care put into the food.

“We just changed the brand, so I don’t know,” one said when I asked how the minestrone soup was, which told me it was not homemade.

“Heck, pretty much everything here is,” said another when I asked whether the raviolis were commercially made and from the freezer.

But not all was lost. There were still some nice finds.

I don’t know what brand the minestrone was, but it was a good one. The soup arrived piping hot and had a zesty, tomato-infused broth packed with wax beans, kidney beans, celery, peas, carrot and tiny tubes of pasta. The garlic-cheese bread was also great – buttery with nicely browned cheese on top.

All of the appetizers hit the table fast, and the food was properly paced out, making my dining experiences smooth and enjoyable. But the rest of the food was not so enjoyable.

The biggest flop, surprisingly, was the one thing I was assured Toscani still does in house from scratch – pizza.

The homemade sauce was good – slightly sweet and a bit tangy – but that was the only positive. The crust, made daily on site, had no identity. It was not really thick, but not thin enough to be crispy. It was too soft and chewy and had a yeasty flavor that kind of lingered, but not in a positive way.

And the toppings were scant and, in one case, missing. My Vegetano pie had none of the chicken I asked to have added to it, and I expected way more “veg” on a pie with this name.

The best parts of my meatball sandwich were the grilled onions and peppers, if that tells you anything. Toscani used to have great meatballs with a lot of Parmesan flavor. The “homemade meatballs” – which the menu still listed but my server debunked – were small and rubbery and reminded me of the ones you would get on sale in a 5-pound bag at a big-box store.

My spaghetti and meatballs dinner was a huge portion but had only three of those tiny meatballs on top. I chose the palomino sauce – a mix of Toscani’s marinara and Alfredo – which was bright orange and quite sweet. It was also rather runny and had little of the Parmesan flavor or richness I would expect a good Alfredo sauce to add. The worst part, however, was the overcooked pasta, which turned to mush when touched by a fork.

The manicotti looked impressive as it arrived bubbling hot and covered with a layer of browned mozzarella. But its ricotta filling was off. It was still firm, which made me think it wasn’t cooked long enough, but it was hot throughout. It was just not a good mix. Instead of creamy and flavorful, it was pasty, flavorless and reminded me of spackling paste.

The Black ’n Bleu salad, like Toscani’s house salad, included a nice mix of iceberg lettuce and other greens, plenty of mozzarella cheese and some croutons and green onions, but the steak was not exactly what I would call steak. This beef was thinly sliced and right from the freezer. It probably wasn’t a Steak-Umm but it was not any better than one.

The final thing I ate did bring me back to the old days at Toscani Pizzeria. The tiramisu was great. The soft lady fingers were soaked nicely, the mascarpone cheese was light and airy and it was dusted with just the right amount of cocoa.

I left with a smile. And it’s probably a good thing that my final memory was good because I don’t see myself going back to create any more memories anytime soon.

Restaurant: Toscani Pizzeria

Address: 120 W. Wayne St.

Phone: 423-6706

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; noon to 9 p.m. Sunday

Cuisine: Italian

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: Beer and wine

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-Friendly: Yes

Menu: Garlic-cheese bread ($3.65), minestrone ($2.45 cup, $3.45 bowl), manicotti ($12.99), Black ’n Bleu salad ($7.25), spaghetti ($11.99), Vegetano pizza ($12.50 medium, $15 large, 17.25 extra large), tiramisu ($4.79)

Rating breakdown: Food: 1/2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: * (1 max.), service: 1/2 (1 max.)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.

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