Toscas split personality

Southwest residents have been gazing into the windows of the empty space next to the Linden Hills Turtle Bread for years. Even the smallest change was seen as some kind of portent: Were those paint cans? Was that the sound of hammering? Would it — could it — mean that the sit-down restaurant we had so long been promised was about to open?

And then, one winter day, a new menu quietly appeared behind the Turtle Bread counter. For breakfast: frittatas, bacon and other hot fare. For lunch: French-inspired sandwiches and composed salads.

This was Tosca, phase one. Hard to distinguish, actually, from good old Turtle Bread: Order at the counter, changing up your usual buttery-crusted quiche or tomato basil soup for salade niçoise or a smoked chicken salad sandwich; have a seat in the same sunny dining room.

But, oh, when that salad or sandwich arrived, you could tell something truly new was afoot. The niçoise: two crunchy, perfect lettuce leaves (butterleaf on the day we dined — is there any better kind?) nestled in with house-made tuna conserva (poached in olive oil, with a faint whiff of spice), and scattered with salty olives and tender bean. The smoked chicken salad sandwich: Packed with layers of flavor, right down to the chicken itself.

And, it turns out, this was just a small sign of what was going on in the expanded kitchen.

Tosca at night

In mid-April, the paper came off the windows of the new entrance, revealing what was unquestionably a podium for a maitre d’ and a few — a very few — small tables with tea lights on them. Tosca, phase two, had finally arrived.

But, this time, there is no mistaking it for a simple menu remix. The dining room is dim and heavy with ambience. Steps right in the center of the room lead up to a semi-open kitchen where you can watch the kitchen staff’s feet scurry back and forth, as they fire off far more than sandwiches and salads.

The menu, which changes daily, is brief — about three antipasti, three primi (pastas), four secondi (mains), and four contorni (sides) — and unmistakably Italian.

In the early spring, the offerings are unmistakably Minnesotan, as well. Polenta from Riverbend Farms in Delano is creamy and rich for a couple of reasons: The first is that it has all the butter and cheese a good polenta deserves; the second is that farmer Greg Reynolds grinds his corn whole — and likely this spring, rather than years ago, like the stuff you buy in the yellow and blue canister — so it is rich with natural oils. A syrupy stream of tomato agrodolce (like a sweet vinegar) on the surface hits just the right note.

Chef Adam Vickerman, who led the kitchen at that other Turtle Bread fine-dining venture, Café Levain, looks to familiar local sources for key ingredients, including chicken from Kadejan Farms in Glenwood, pork from Fischer Farms in Waseca and vegetables from Riverbend. (While it’s too early to run a full review, one thing we can say for sure: Young Chef Vickerman sure knows where to get the good stuff.)

I, personally, have never been able to order true Italian-style — antipasti, pasta and then a big main meal — so I’m glad that Tosca offers both starter- and entrée-sized portions. It may not be authentically Italian, but when you want a big bowl of gnocchi swimming in browned butter and layered with parsley and sharp hard cheese for your dinner, you should be able to order it without embarrassment. Vickerman’s pastas are hearty, chewy and fresh, layered with heavy flavors like butter, squash, mushrooms and thyme, but we can guess that will change as the weather warms up.

And so, after years of watching and wondering, the patient residents of Southwest get two very different restaurants in one, both well worth the wait.