“Hi, I’m Toni, and I’m known for my balls,” Toni Sapienza said with her spunky Bronx flair, in reference to her famous arancini; A double breaded crispy exterior filled with a creamy six-cheese rice and fresh herb center, kissed by San Marzano plum tomato sauce. At Toni’s Tuscan Table, Sapienza treats you as if you’re a guest in her home. “Call me tomorrow with a craving, and I’ll make it for you,” she promises. And she means it. Every dish is created with love. You can feel it. She kibitzes with you while you’re dining and kisses you on the cheek when you leave. I seriously offered to help her clean up because it felt like I was over a friend’s house for dinner.
Be lucky enough to know about this hidden gem, and sit at one of just three tables in the whole joint, with room for eight at each. Bring a large party or be prepared to make new friends sitting community-style, while watching the chefs in action through the open kitchen. The intimate space fits right in with her motto, “Walk in as strangers, leave as family.”
For the three nights a week they open their doors (Thurs-Sat, dinner only), you can find Toni’s Tuscan Table tucked away in Black Rock, CT next to Port Coffee House. You almost have to know somebody who has been there to be aware it exists. There’s no big sign–just a banner hanging out front. Luckily, after 2 1/2 years, all that is about to change. A grand re-opening is in the works for December, when she’ll be taking over the space full-time. New decor, longer hours and finally, an awning of her own.
It’s a very exciting time for Sapienza, who already wears many hats at the establishment. She plans the menu, purchases the ingredients, prepares the food (along with two other soux chefs), takes your order, and does it all with ease. Whether picking up chicken cutlets from the Bronx, or curd and broccolli rabe from Arthur Avenue, she is fully invested in that evening’s meal. “We don’t have any purveyors. When you eat the fish, I got it that day,” she said.
You can rely on Italian classics from her carefully selected menu, but most people only care about one thing: her mouthwatering specials. There are six a night, including dessert. Can’t decide what to eat? She’ll show you each finished plate before she brings it to the customer who chose it. Perhaps it’s a seasonal gnocchi with creamy pumpkin gorgonzola sauce, fall off the bone pork chops or her signature cannoli stuffed strawberries. Or maybe you’d prefer a heaping bowl of pasta fagioli with sausage and broccoli rabe for a twist. It’s not fancy, it’s not stuffy, it’s what she lovingly refers to as peasant food. The kind of elevated comforts that keep you coming back for more.
But it’s not just the cooking. It’s the woman behind it all. She’s the kind of magnetic person you want to be friends with so you’ll get invited to her super-cool parties. You almost wish she could join you with a bottle of wine (the place is BYOB) and a plate of chicken scarpiello so you can learn more about her. And in a way you can. Sign up for on one of her cooking classes, followed by a full feast, and learn the secrets behind some of your favorites.
Lucky for me, I had the honor of participating in her most recent event, making fresh mozzarella (recipe below). Is there a more professional way to say OMG? In about five minutes we had warm, salty, hand-pulled cheese courtesy of guest Chef Brendan Hayes. A drizzle of olive oil and balsamic reduction literally melted into the chewy-soft, indulgence. “You can eat it like an apple,” Sapienza said. “It’s a beautiful thing.”
It really doesn’t get much better than that.
Toni’s Tuscan Table’s Fresh Mozzarella
2 lbs of mozzarella curd (Can be found at specialty markets)
170°-180° Boiling water (Enough to cover curd)
Kosher salt to taste
Black pepper to taste
Olive oil to taste
Balsamic glaze to taste
You will also need heat safe gloves
Cut cheese curd into cubes and place in a heat safe mixing bowl.
Ladle boiling water over top, enough to cover it.
The curd will essentially begin to cook.
Add a generous amount of salt. This is the number one way to flavor the cheese.
Using a wooden spoon, repeatedly bring the mixture towards you.
Wearing heat safe gloves to protect your hands (Hayes is a pro so he left them off!), knead the cheese to remove any lumps.
Form a solid ball, then knot it at a point so it holds together.
Drizzle with good olive oil.
Season with plenty of kosher salt and black pepper.
Top with balsamic glaze.
Cut into slices and taste immediately.
Eat and enjoy knowing you’ll never want to eat packaged mozzarella again!
Tune into my Halloween party planning segment on CT Style TOMORROW at 12:30 on News 8!
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