BY BILL RODRIGUEZ
First-rate food, cut-rate prices
Marriage counselors and hotspot-defusing diplomats are all well and good. But the world, perhaps, has a greater need for even more good cooks. It all started with our mailman waxing rhapsodic about a new restaurant he’d just discovered. Its clam sauce — the red, not white — is to die for, he insisted. With this sort of a recommendation, we couldn’t not go.
At Sophia’s Tuscan Grille, we found an unassuming place with a stucco façade. Stepping inside, appearances were not much more impressive. Pale walls hung with modest paintings of furrowed vineyards and the restful like. Lazily turning ceiling fans above, cloth napkins but plasticized tablecloths below. Modest.
We took a table, and as I was adjusting to the implications of Sophia’s BYOB sign after a hard day, who should pop out of the air but my own personal bodhisattva.In his hands was a proffered bottle of Clos du Bois merlot, a full glassful remaining. Left over, he said. Try the clam sauce — the red, he added. The air shimmered, and I knew I was either in heaven or the Twilight Zone.
Soon St. Peter/Rod Serling stepped over in the form of our affable waiter, James. He placed before us some tasty focaccia — the thicker, soft version — and poured out a small bowl of rosemary-infused olive oil. His enthusiastic report of the soup of the day made Polish wedding soup sound virtually pornographic. Here was the rare waiter keenly aware of the best part of his job — to turn people on to great tastes. We let him get back to the privacy of the kitchen and his lovely soup.
The menu declares that the baked clams casino ($6.95) appetizer is shucked to order, so we knew we were in good hands. We shared the eggplant roulades ($7.95), three sautéed slices wrapped around a filling of three Italian cheeses, and much smoky andouille sausage, atop vodka pink sauce. Quite good. We also shared one of the three grilled pizzas ($7.25-$7.50) available. The six slices were super-thin, minimally brushed with marinara sauce and topped by four cheeses that spilled over where the edge crust would be, to crisply caramelize. Including feta, for tart smoothness, was a good touch.
Our pastas and entrées were as thoughtfully conceived, attractively presented, and delicious, despite being five to 10 bucks cheaper than a flocked-wallpaper restaurant can get. The swordfish ($18.95) special of the day was quite fresh, minimally blackened, with a quiet herb and yogurt sauce. Accompanying were crisp mixed vegetables and earthy skin-on garlic mashed potatoes. The sea scallops ($15.95) had six fat mollusks, seared brown and pleasantly sweet — marinated? — with a lemony risotto that was creamy and flecked with parsley. Johnnie’s spinach and ricotta gnocchi ($12.95) were float-off-her-plate light, tossed with that rich vodka pink sauce and topped with a bonus of portobello slices.
Don’t worry. I had the linguine with clam sauce — red. The pasta was overcooked for me, but just right for Johnnie. The sauce was, in fact, worth describing to perfect strangers, as a humanitarian gesture. This dish contained chunks of clams in addition to a ring of a half-dozen in-shell cherrystone clams, a definitive but minority version. The light broth had pieces of tomato, a slight red-pepper warmth, and bounteous pancetta. Shreds of cheese — Parmesan, I think — melted together, as a dusting would not have, and provided more discrete areas of flavor to taste.
Desserts ($4.95-$6.95) range from sorbets and bread pudding to dense chocolate concoctions, but we passed around a simple crème brûlée ($6.95). Our waiter had bragged about the chef using Tahitian vanilla beans, at $90 an ounce, so a subtlety search was in order. It indeed provided a deep, velvety essence of vanilla.
Chef/proprietor Scott Parker opened this gift of a place just before last Christmas, appropriately. He teaches at Johnson & Wales, so as time goes on we can expect to see more restaurants with his high standards. Yet the prices are low — and about to get lower: an upcoming $25 twofer will allow our starving Brown student guests, Tarra and Ramel, to afford a return visit. If we discover two or three restaurants per year as good as Sophia’s, at any price, we consider ourselves blessed.
Bill Rodriguez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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