A quick Google or Zomato search for restaurants on the lower South Coast of Kwazulu Natal reveals a clutch of average rated eateries, offering a variety of food types. Continuing my quest for the out of ordinary, I found a listing with descriptors like “Italian dining with a Tuscan flair”, “authentic food with a view” and “one of the best.”
Well, had I found a hidden gem?
Further research showed that the restaurant, Casa Toscana Ristorante, was started back in the 1990’s by husband and wife duo, Mario and Marisa Toniolo, who are committed to making real Italian fare. Housed in a stone villa, the restaurant overlooks the stunning Mpenjati Lagoon. I didn’t need more convincing to book a family dinner whilst holidaying in the area.
Travelling to the restaurant at night is a bit of an adventure. It’s set on a farm, there is no street lighting, and sign posts are minimal. Invariably there were jokes in the car about being lost in the rolling hills of sugar cane until morning. But guided by the GPS, we did eventually see some light at the end of the road and just headed toward it. Soon enough we were at a guarded parking lot.
We were shown to a large, high ceilinged room, with warm lighting. Framed pictures hug the walls, wooden furnishings and crisp white linen drape the tables giving the room a very cosy, homily feel. We were seated at a table for six near a large bay window with an unlit stone fireplace close by (it was warm enough). But the supposedly great view was veiled in a cloak of darkness as the sun sets early during April on the East Coast. The restaurant was fully booked and there was a great buzz.
The menu was filled with all sorts of interesting, enticing and appetising options. We selected the Stuzzichini (nibbles / appetisers) to share for the table, which included bread, deep fried olives stuffed with ricotta and crispy squid. The deep fried olives were unusual. The homemade aioli that accompanied the squid, was an absolute winner. My nephew wiped the bowl clean!
Starters included a caprese salad, arancini and a flan dish called “sformatino di carciofi e gamberi”. This consisted of artichoke cream, Grana Padano (a hard, slow ripened Italian cheese), flavoured with olive oil and garlic and topped with prawn tails - this dish shot the lights out! No one flavour over powered the other, it was light, creamy and flavoursome. The artichoke cream was the perfect foil to the prawns. A few ingredients done right, what more is needed?
I really appreciated that the mains options come in two different portion sizes; my family are notorious for struggling to finish their meals. The stars among the mains were the “tagliata fiorentina” (a chunky grilled T- bone drizzled in olive oil and served with potato wedges), the lamb and asparagus pasta parcels and spinach and ricotta ravioli (all home-made)– these all won favour with my dinner companions.
I opted for porcini mushrooms, white mushrooms, and garlic and parsley tagliatelle. Porcini mushrooms can deliver bold taste, but this dish didn’t deliver the punch and earthiness I expected.
We started with a Paul Cluver 2015 Pinot Noir, but it lacked body and character. For mains we switched to the Raka Quinary 2013, an old favourite which we hadn’t had in a long time. It was a great choice, with the berry flavours working well with our dishes. It didn’t over power the meals but was strong enough to complement the range of flavours on the plate.
We opted for a few choices, which we then shared amongst us. This included Don Pedros, the Tuscan biscotti (served with macadamia nuts and dessert wine) and a chocolate pudding with an oozy centre. They were all good.
We were quickly seated, our server was polite, but as the night progressed service became very slow. Plates and used glasses sat at the table for far too long. Then there was the request for a Grappa menu. We were told the owner would be along shortly to explain the offering. In the end he did show, but we had to ask three times before he appeared. And when he did there was some level of disinterest. Not the Italian passion exhibited by your typical hosts.
Casa Toscana is set in a pretty house in a beautiful location. A few outstanding dishes, make it worth a visit especially if you are in the lower Kwazulu Natal South Coast but for me the biggest let down was the lack of true Italian warmth and hospitality. Sadly the overwhelming impression we were left with was one of both the service staff and the owner, simply going through the motions. There was no sincerity. A welcome word or two from the owners, recommendations on meals and some heart-felt Italian passion will go a long way to helping this restaurant reach its full potential.