The first time I had dinner at Trattoria Tosca, I left the restaurant giddy with glee: Each dish was as close to perfect as I’ve ever had in a Minnesota restaurant.
Tosca is the long, long awaited restaurant in Linden Hills. By my math, it has been awaited since at least 2003, when the baking operations of Turtle Bread moved out of the space and on to larger digs on Chicago Avenue. (Tosca is part of the Turtle Bread empire.) But what’s a six-year wait when the results are so wonderful?
The tonarelli pasta, for instance, was stupendous. Sturdy, tender squiggles of egg-rich pasta are dressed with a silky riff on vitello tonnato, a magical tuna, anchovy, Pinot Grigio vinegar, and brown-butter emulsion as rich as a carbonara sauce, yet built so that the custard-like sauce vibrates to the savory note of umami (umami being the flavor of meatiness that you find in mushrooms, miso, and meat). While the original version of this dish has a much simpler tuna sauce served over veal, here the meat makes an appearance in the house-dried beef (which chef Adam Vickerman calls beef bottarga, after dried pressed tuna roe). The little gratings and shreds of beef melt into the sauce and give the pasta a thrumming intensity, and remind me, curiously enough, of the rich, sweet, meaty flavors of miso-dressed sablefish. The gnocchi were also great: golden, compact as little spools, seared in brown butter with garlic and shallots so that each one was caramelized top and bottom. Served with a squirt of lemon and a bit of grana padano cheese, they were so intense and beautifully caramelized that they reminded me most of sliders—with no meat, no ketchup, and no bun.
It was the sort of farm-fresh comfort food I haven’t seen in this city in many moons. The service was fine, and the wine list was actually quite good: affordable and food-friendly, with a nice balance of smaller estates and bigger names.
The only off note of the night was, inexplicably, dessert: We tried a chocolate crostata, a tart that was oversweet, gooey, and had never set in its shell, as well as a panna cotta that tasted unflavored next to an astringent strawberry-rhubarb compote. Why would one of the best bakeries in the city forgo their own delectable pies and cakes in favor of these lesser desserts? Oh well, I thought, such are the vagaries of a new restaurant. Still, I left the restaurant that first night tingling with joy. It reminded me of my first meals at 112 Eatery and Restaurant Alma. The food was plain but exacting in precisely the right way—confident but never fussy, announcing a great new talent, perhaps even a great new restaurant.
But then I went again, for a visit that was so graceless that the servers may as well have slipped the plates into cannons and fired them point blank at brick walls. My server presented the pasta primi course, side dishes, and entrées, for example, all at the same time, while we were still beginning our appetizers. Told that we didn’t want (and didn’t have room for) the entire meal simultaneously, the kitchen’s Plan B was to keep everything hot for the next 30 minutes. By the time we received our food, the gnocchi were brown and as shriveled as prunes. The chicken was so dry that it literally squeaked between my teeth like violin strings, and the halibut tasted like wax candles. Just as the Lake Harriet Rose Garden offers every variety and nuance of roses, so was this meal to the rainbow of possibilities inherent in disappointing food.
Subsequent visits to Tosca revealed that when Vickerman is behind the stove at Tosca, the restaurant is truly excellent. When he is not, it is, more or less, not. This is common in restaurants, yet it’s also unacceptable. If you need specialized knowledge (like the chef’s schedule) to get good food in a place, that’s the very opposite of true hospitality. So, Trattoria Tosca is in many ways the thing that this professional restaurant critic hates most of all. I can’t definitively tell you whether to go to it or skip it. It is not a great restaurant. It occasionally serves exquisite food. Should you go? How lucky do you feel?
However, I am not merely a restaurant critic. I’m also a writer interested in life as it is lived in our fair state, and in pursuing the question of whether Trattoria Tosca is a good place for you to go for your birthday, I came upon a different story about life in our particular corner of the universe.
Here’s that story: Who exactly are these chefs that restaurant critics like me make such a fuss over?
Let’s consider Tosca’s chef, Adam Vickerman. He just turned 24. The morning I spoke to Vickerman, I asked him to describe his last 24 hours. Here’s what he offered:
He arrived at work at 7:30 in the morning. The restaurant was rented out for a graduation party, and his kitchen was also making the to-order brunch for Turtle Bread. So they made pans of potatoes for the party as orders for pancakes poured in. Brunch service ended at 2:30. “You can imagine what a kitchen is like after you’ve served 300 people,” he told me. “It’s like a bomb went off.”
He had two-and-a-half hours to restore his kitchen and prep for dinner service, which started at 5 p.m. Eighty people came for dinner.
Vickerman’s sous chef is 29; his lead line cook is 22. (No cook at Tosca is over 30.) After dinner ended, he left them to supervise the kitchen clean-up and headed home to the south Minneapolis house that he shares with seven—yes, seven—roommates, most of whom work in restaurants: line cooks, pastry chefs, and assorted others. “Everyone’s obsessed with food,” he says. With girlfriends, boyfriends, and so on, Vickerman guesses there are 10 or a dozen twentysomethings living there at any moment.
Since all these roommates are cooks, chefs, or similar, they’re all on the same schedule, which leads to multi-course tasting meals that start at 11 in the evening and end at 2 o’clock in the morning. “You can’t even count the courses sometimes,” says Vickerman. “If we don’t go out to eat, we’re always trying out new ideas on each other.”
After a few hours of sleep, it’s time to do it again. Lately, Vickerman says, 16-hour days are not unheard of, and 100-hour weeks are not abnormal. Mountain Dew is his water. One of the things Vickerman and his roommates talk about during late nights are the chefs and cooks who were driven to nervous breakdowns by being overworked, like the ambitious up-and-comer who was putting in 100-hour weeks at a highly regarded local gastropub—until one night when his boss found him stabbing plastic garbage bins with chef’s knives.
“My parents love what I’m doing,” Vickerman told me. “They don’t ever see me, but they like what they read in the papers. Twenty years down the line, I don’t know where I’ll be, or if I’ll even be cooking, but I think I will, and I’ll look back and say, ‘That was a good time—working, sleeping, working.’ It’s all worth it if the food tastes good.”
That food often does taste very, very good. And sometimes it doesn’t. But once I talked to young chef Vickerman, it was not the food that remained my lasting impression of Tosca. Instead, what I think of when I think of “chefs” may have changed forever. I mean, I know there are young twentysomethings doing what they do 24 hours a day: Marines, ballerinas, medical students, Gawker scribes. I just never realized that’s who we talk about when we talk about local restaurants.
3415 W. 44th St., Minneapolis
Open 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday: 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Sat.
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a senior editor at Minnesota Monthly.