Like a winning horse that's slow out of the gate, like a floating glacier, like a land war in Asia, Tuscany il Ristorante is more than it seems at first. Behind its rather unprepossessing door, located next to a health food store in Westlake Plaza, is a grander restaurant than you'd expect, three sizable rooms (one sneaked in behind the health food place) filled with paintings and even a grand piano.
It's also more than it's likely to appear from the first course because Tuscany's appetizers are less impressive than what follows. A clean-tasting minestrone said to be flavored with prosciutto. A bland Caesar salad with a dressing that lacks anchovies and even Parmesan. Plain deep-fried shrimp and calamari ; there are supposed to be sand dabs too, but they don't necessarily show up. None of these is really as exciting as the puffy fresh pizza bread with slices of tomato baked on top that you get just for sitting down.
If a pasta dish is offered as an appetizer special, order it. It will give you a preview of the kind of thing this kitchen is really capable of. You might get a plate of three items such as angel hair in a lively fresh tomato sauce, ricotta-filled tortellini mixed with mushrooms and prosciutto and heart-shaped spinach ravioli filled with salmon. Actually, that spinach pasta is a bit chewy, but the salmon is generously dosed with saffron.
The pastas, in short, are unusually good. It's worth noting that lasagna is apparently available only at lunch, though Tuscany's version of lasagna might not be quite the thing for midday, delicious though it is. It's staggeringly rich, filled with ground veal and mozzarella, and covered not only with tomato sauce but also with creamy bechamel, like some cross between lasagna and moussaka.
The non-pasta entrees may be even better than the pastas. The filet mignon ( filetto di bue ), which comes in a cream sauce subtly flavored with mustard and brandy, is about 2 inches thick and can be cut clean through with a fork. Soft-shell crabs come in lemon cream sauce with an elusive herbal flavor. Tuscany's version of seafood chowder is plain and simple, just mass quantities of shellfish in tomato broth, though it's surprisingly full of red pepper.
As a special, there might be something unexpected, such as roast pork shank. The captain (this is the sort of place where you are aware of captains) carves the meat off the bone for you. The best thing about the pork shank is neither the meat nor the tiny bit of meaty sauce flavored with garlic and rosemary, but the luscious pappardelle noodles, thick and wide, faintly reminiscent of Thai lard nah noodles.
The desserts are all very good. Two have a close family relationship: the semifreddo is a layer of plush sweetened cream and cheese sitting on a flimsy sort of pie crust, and the tirami su is essentially the same, layered with sponge cake soaked in espresso. Tuscany's creme brulee is genuinely creamy, with a barely caramelized surface and a little bit of orange flavor. Even the chocolate cake, thoroughly American-style though it is, has a lot of character because of a powerful presence of bitter chocolate.
A couple of years ago, there was a celebrated restaurant in Camarillo named Tommaso's. If it hadn't changed its name to Tuscany when it moved to Thousand Oaks, we wouldn't have to be so surprised by what's behind these unimpressive doors.
TUSCANY il RISTORANTE:
968-4 Westlake Blvd., Thousand Oaks. (805) 495-2768. Open for lunch Monday through Friday, for dinner seven days. Full bar. Parking lot. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $35 to $80.