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While traveling on a bus recently, I eavesdropped as a couple described their relationship to a woman sitting beside them. Being polite, she listened, nodded occasionally and murmured, "Isn’t that nice," at the appropriate time. Oblivious to their seatmate’s glazed eyes and frozen smile; the couple continued their gushing descriptions of one another’s sensitivity, intellect and sexual allure.

"She just gets me," he said of her.

"Yes, we’re soul mates," she sighed.

I’ll be kind and say that had these "soul mates" not met, the chance of finding others who "just got them," would be slim.

Why one restaurant works in a location and another doesn’t, like the smitten couple on the bus who had the unique ability to see the positive in one another, can be chalked up to that intangible something called chemistry.

Take 183 Seventh Ave. in Park Slope, now home to Porta Toscana, a Tuscan-style eatery that opened in October. The expansive room has played host to one failed restaurant after another, most recently a Moroccan eatery where the number of patrons dining at any given time topped out at 10.

Not easily spooked, the optimistic new owner, Ziva Assante, who also owns the popular Bacco in SoHo, hopes to break the location’s spell of bad luck by revamping the room and extending the menu north of the Mediterranean Sea.

She has work ahead: While the redecorated room looks good, and the menu is ambitious, both fall short.

The space now has a handsome Tuscan farmhouse theme with dark wood walls, moody lighting and racks of rustic pottery. Even with the apparent effort to create a comfortable setting, the room retains a bit of the chilliness that haunted its predecessors. A few bright splashes of color - maybe some vivid floral arrangements - would be welcome.

Huge, square plates - the size of most serving platters - make an artful presentation of the entrees. Unfortunately, a couple seated at a table for two will find their platter-plates pushed rim-to-rim; their wineglasses perched precariously on the table’s edge; and their unused silverware tumbling to the floor.

Clattering silverware and overly intimate plates can be overlooked if the food is terrific, and several of chef Vincenzo Spiritoso’s dishes were very good - a pasta dish and his light desserts for instance. A few, however, never hit the high notes.

Crostini, or crisp grilled Italian bread topped with a variety of pates, is a traditional beginning to a Tuscan dinner. A chunky chicken liver pate usually makes an appearance on a crostini plate, and it is offered at Porta Toscana. A woodsy mushroom pate and a complex and deliciously salty black olive pate were gutsy and satisfying, while chopped tomato and basil dressed with a fruity olive oil tasted like bland winter tomatoes.

A blend of beets and carrots produced gorgeous, ruby-red soup, with a luxurious silkiness, but the sweet-with-sweet pairing was too one-dimensional.

The outstanding dish of the evening was bowtie pasta tossed in a rich pink sauce, and generously topped with pieces of tender smoked salmon, creamy goat cheese and a healthy dollop of bright-orange salmon caviar .

I’ve had similar dishes before, sans caviar, and they were sometimes dull. Spiritoso’s version is perfection - the pasta al dente, the salmon tender and flavorful, and the tangy sauce richly imbued with the sunny flavor of fresh tomatoes. Cool, popping beads of caviar added textural interest.

A brawny sauce of broccoli rabe, garlicky fennel-studded sausage and anchovies, was undone by house-made orecchiette (little ear-shaped pasta). The pasta, undercooked to a state of hyper-chewiness, made eating more than one mouthful too labor intensive.

Melted pecorino cheese, zucchini and cherry tomatoes made a pleasant sauce for penne.

An entree of roasted rack of lamb, a Tuscan specialty - five small chops ringing the edge of the plate, cooked rare as ordered - were mild tasting, without that funky mineral taste some lamb-lovers prefer. (I’m one of them.) The piney scent and clean herbal flavor of rosemary, used to season the meat, went a long way in enhancing its flavor and aroma. On the plate were wedges of oven-baked potatoes, perfectly cooked, crisp string beans and julienned carrots. Smoky, sweet, grilled red pepper slices added plenty of color to the plate.

A coarse, sweet-and-sour, apple and onion sauce couldn’t perform the necessary CPR needed on tough, thinly sliced pork chops. The same sides served with the lamb accompanied the chops with less success. Red peppers with pork chops can be delicious, but the apple, pork chop and pepper combination made for a cacophonous threesome.

Desserts ended the meal on an up note. Tiramisu, a layered dessert of sponge cake, moistened with espresso and spread with pillowy mounds of whipped mascarpone cheese has become a regular on many Italian dessert menus. Here it’s feather-light with the espresso cutting the sweetness of the whipped cheese.

A drizzle of honey over the top of damp, dense, yet not heavy, classic ricotta cheesecake added an engaging floral note to the dessert.

Can Porta Toscana become a neighborhood crowd-pleaser? The possibility is there, but in the meantime, a lot of wand-waving needs to happen to break the spell cast on Porta Toscana’s location.


Porta Toscana (183 Seventh Ave. between First and Second streets in Park Slope) accepts Visa and MasterCard. Entrees: $18-$25. For reservations, call (718) 499-3746.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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