Linden Hills' Trattoria Tosca makes the ambitious seem effortless

Hitting the sweet spot between upscale and casual: Tosca's Flavors of Spring Plate (top) and rhubarb-topped panna cotta

Hitting the sweet spot between upscale and casual: Tosca's Flavors of Spring Plate (top) and rhubarb-topped panna cotta

For the past five years, ever since Harvey McLain moved his Turtle Bread baking facilities out of Linden Hills, neighbors have been waiting, patiently, for him to make good on his promise to reopen the space as a restaurant. Periodically, rumors of a forthcoming launch would surface, but the date would always pass with no discernible change. Sometimes, heading down 44th Street, I'd think I'd catch a glimpse of sheetrock or table saws through the windows, though they always turned out to be new-restaurant ghosts.

I couldn't understand McLain's hesitation. Linden Hills residents are among the most affluent and food-savvy in the city, frequenting top-tier restaurants such as Alma, La Belle Vie, and Heidi's. ("They're a very demanding group," McLain says, "and I applaud them for it. They have very sophisticated palates.") Ironically, the neighborhood's dining options are mostly limited to casual fare: burgers and malts at Convention Grill, barbecue at Famous Dave's, bacon and eggs at Zumbro. Even the slightly more upscale Rice Paper and Cafe 28 aren't performing at the level that the demographic could sustain. And here was McLain, sitting on the neighborhood's most coveted restaurant vacancy for nearly six years, and not giving diners a crumb.

But McLain has learned a few things about the food-service business in the 15 years since he launched his Turtle Bread empire, which began with the original Linden Hills shop and has grown to include the Turtle Bread/Pizza Biga/Cafe Levain complex at 48th and Chicago. Not wanting to see his new restaurant forced to relocate on a landlord's whim, McLain waited until he was able to buy the building outright. So after much anticipation, the corner that once housed the dry goods store run by Curt Carlson's father (McLain says he has an old photo of young Carlson in front of the building with a horse-drawn wagon), then a Studebaker dealership, and more recently the Reindeer House gift shop, would finally become Harvey McLain's next restaurant.

At Trattoria Tosca, cozy tables near the front windows have replaced the dough sheeter used for making croissants. The smaller of the two dining areas has a wine rack on one side and the raised kitchen on another, and looks as cute as the black-and-white hexagonal tiles on its floor. The adjacent dining room, which abuts Turtle Bread, is darker and roomier, lined with forest-green banquettes. Both spaces can get quite loud during the dinner rush but tend to clear out by about 9 or 9:30 p.m.

McLain's concept for Trattoria Tosca is not so different from that of Cafe Levain, the casual French bistro that McLain conceived to replace his original eatery, the more formal Restaurant Levain. (Out went the highly résuméd chef and luxurious menu, in came ketchup bottles on paper-covered tables and entrées priced less than $20.) In Levain's first incarnation, McLain noticed that most of his customers returned only once a year—but they would frequent slightly more relaxed, slightly cheaper restaurants, such as the nearby Cave Vin, several times a week. So with both Cafe Levain and Trattoria Tosca, McLain aimed for the sweet spot between upscale and casual: restaurants that feel special enough to celebrate a birthday, but not too extravagant for a weeknight supper.

Tosca had its soft opening last fall, helmed by chef Landon Schoenefeld, an up-and-comer best known for opening the Bulldog NE. Schoenefeld introduced a new breakfast-lunch menu to Turtle's ready-to-eat options, supplementing quiches and pastries with omelets, frittatas, French toast, and pancakes. Before launching Tosca's dinner service, McLain sent Schoenefeld and Cafe Levain chef Adam Vickerman on a trip to Italy to tour kitchens, take a few cooking lessons, and experience the country's food and wine firsthand. But soon thereafter, shortly before dinner service was scheduled to begin, the peripatetic Schoenefeld resigned, and McLain asked Vickerman to take over Tosca.

Since Vickerman—who was then a relative unknown in foodie circles—was handed the reins at Cafe Levain a little more than a year ago, his artful yet down-to-earth fare quickly impressed neighbors and critics. McLain, who has employed several of the Twin Cities' top chefs, including Steven Brown and Stewart Woodman, says he's been extremely impressed with Vickerman's inspired cooking and the calm, measured way he oversees the kitchen—no small accomplishment for a guy who just celebrated his 24th birthday.

Tosca's menu is nearly as brief as the one at Matt's Bar, with just enough choices to keep diners from feeling limited. The menu's structure was mostly a business-driven decision (reducing the ambiguity of what diners might order means the kitchen is less likely to run short of some items or carry excess of others), but Vickerman says he likes the way the spare menu allows him to make changes based on seasonal ingredients. "You don't get complacent, cooking the same thing a million times," he says.

Drawing on his experiences in Italy, Vickerman creates simple-seeming preparations that highlight often fleeting, seasonal ingredients, many of which are sourced from local purveyors. "Some of our best dishes are on the menu for one day," he says. The approach seemed a tad raw when a salad came topped with a whole radish—fibrous stems, spindly tail, and all—but, typically, it feels spot-on for the season. Vickerman might anchor the Flavors of Spring Plate with an ultra-smooth chicken-liver pâté, rich with cream and brown butter and seasoned with shallots, garlic, rosemary, and Marsala, for example. But he'll contrasts the rich pâté with an opposing battery of tastes and textures that includes several early-season pickings: the crisp, fresh sting of a French breakfast radish; the tart crunch of pickled ramps and fennel; the piercing sweetness of roasted grapes; and a complex rhubarb-ramp compote.

Vickerman hopes to stretch diners' palates well beyond the expected bruschetta and insalata caprese. While in Italy, he discovered vitello tonnato, poached veal roast that's chilled and smothered in an anchovy-and-caper tuna sauce. Knowing that the authentic version might not go over so well in Minnesota ("though people are starting to trust us," Vickerman notes), he created a pasta-based variation. The dish, which is available in a full or half portion, consisted of gangly noodles tossed with tuna sauce right before service, carbonara-style. The thick, chewy noodles stood up to the bold tuna sauce—a sort of emulsified vinaigrette with the creaminess of egg yolk and olive oil, and the pungent bite of capers and anchovies. In lieu of veal, Vickerman and his crew marinated hanger steak, froze it, then grated flecks of raw beef over the top. The effect was so marvelous that I knew I'd be tempted to order it again on my next visit, instead of dutifully trying something else.

But when I arrived at Tosca a week later, the exceptional pasta had been replaced with a ubiquitous-seeming risotto. My initial disappointment subsided as soon as I forked the first bite of the creamy rice, rich with house-made mascarpone cheese, tempered with fresh green garlic, and garnished with delicate purple chive blossoms that looked like they belonged on a Royal Doulton china pattern. I instantly understood Vickerman's strategy for placating diners who would react as I had—replace every beloved dish with something even better.

Vickerman credits his gnocchi recipe to his former Restaurant Levain boss, Steven Brown. The pan-seared pillows had a wonderfully creamy, almost pudding-like center, and paired perfectly with brown butter, squash, lemon, parsley, and Grana Padano, a Parmesan-like cheese. The bucatini is another deceptively simple dish. The thin, tube-shaped noodles were sparely dressed with tomato, garlic, rosemary, and chile flakes, but the sauce did exactly as much work as was necessary. The brown butter-soaked breadcrumbs added a surprising crunch, a bit like that of roe-topped sushi.

Tosca's menu typically features just four entrées: pork, beef, fish, and poultry. I found the halibut served in a garlicky broth with ramps, shell peas, and wilted greens a bit bland—but that incarnation has already been replaced by one that resembles a tomato-based cioppino. I didn't love the roast chicken as much as I have at Cafe Levain, though Tosca's version comes with a lovely puddle of polenta, course-ground by a local farmer just days before it makes its way to Tosca. The pork loin was one of my top entrée picks: moist and flavorful from being brined with sugar and honey and served with pancetta-studded cannelloni beans and a sweet-tart rhubarb mostarda. I didn't expect to find a great steak at Tosca, but the rib eye I tried—infused with deep, earthy flavors from its charred exterior to its ruby-red core—was the best I've had in months. Paired with Yukon potatoes and local mushrooms, it belongs in the arsenal of any proselytizing carnivore.

Tosca's desserts give the impression that the restaurant is running without a pastry chef, which is, in fact, the case. The ho-hum chocolate crostada, for example, didn't have nearly the star power of Levain's famous chocolate torte. And while I liked the olive oil cake's moist texture and semi-sweet, citrus flavor, it might not be enough to keep diners from making a dessert stop at Sebastian Joe's. Tosca's frozen confections, though, are worthy competition—especially the striking yogurt sorbet and the luscious chocolate ice cream. And an excellent rhubarb-topped panna cotta swiftly curbed the temptation to swing by Joe's for a chocolate-dipped Brr Bar.

So far, the opening of Tosca hasn't drastically affected Turtle Bread. (Though I'd consider the tuna tartine, an open-faced sandwich created by Schoenefeld, a welcome newcomer. Made with house-preserved tuna—ahi tuna poached in olive oil with fennel, anise, peppercorns, and bay leaves, in a process somewhat akin to making confit—green beans, and a hard-cooked egg served on grilled bread, it's a nice riff on Nicoise salad.) After he settles in at Tosca, Vickerman hopes to refine the Turtle Bread menu, and I hope he also offers a little more hospitality training for Turtle's mostly teenage staff, which doesn't seem nearly as thoughtful or engaged as the one at Tosca. I think that poised yet personable staffers—like the server who cracked a cooties joke when he offered to bring share plates—are a big part of what helps Tosca feel welcoming.

McLain says he wants Trattoria Tosca to be, first and foremost, of the neighborhood and for the neighbors. "They should be the ones that hug it to their bosom and say, 'Thank god you're here,'" he remarks. Even though I don't live within walking distance, at the end of each wonderful meal I felt the same sentiment. I wanted to wrap the experience tight in my arms and squeeze.