Bingo! It's 4pm and almost dark on our third and last night in town. As we wander the byways of the Sablon district—lots of galleries, clever little restaurants, and boutique shops—we keep an eye out for a place for dinner later on. A tiny storefront is Toscana 21. We enter and a bearded man waves us away, no food. "Ah, that's different" he says, when he learns we only want to make a 9pm reservation. The deal is set and we return at the agreed upon time. Two tables are offered, at the smaller one near the serving bar we can watch the activity. The main players seem to be the bearded man we met earlier (the father), his tall son Lorenzo, Lorenzo's wife or girlfriend, a sister who works the kitchen, and mother Janine (Jeanine?), who is the chief cook. Italians all.
The menus are hokey little artist's palettes with dishes and prices written on scraps of paper and stuck haphazardly onto the palettes. Hmmm, what to make of this? Mostly, the offerings are pasta; plus, as I recall, one chicken entrée. The prices are 10 to 14 euros. To start, we decide to share a dish we have had many times, Caprese, a salad (in this case 12 euros) of sliced tomatoes and bufalo mozzarella cheese, garnished with fresh basil. Is a good, but not killer rendition. The tomatoes are a bit pink and peaked but actually have some taste; the cheese is of the right consistency, and there is an occasional explosion of fresh basil. OK, but not special.
Then the pastas arrive: penne with ragu (12 euro) and a tried-and-true favorite, spaghetti carbonara (12 euro). We dig in. I think the first words out of my mouth were a hushed "Oh, my God." Liz is too stunned to speak. We exchange bites and quickly agree that this is hall-of-fame pasta. The ragu, we decide, is bits of veal cooked with a tomato sauce slowly and given enough time for just the right combination of herbs to subtly and seamlessly invade the meat and sauce. Magnificent. Who knew pasta outside of Italy could be this good?
In my experience, carbonara is often overwhelmed by one or more of its ingredients: the cheese, the cream, the egg, and/or, the usual culprit, bacon and its grease. Too often, the bacon fat soaks up the Parmesan cheese and the raw egg yolk, leaving a sticky, heavy, too rich clump of pasta. Janine's has none of these qualities. The dish is silky smooth, the house-made noodles slippery and beautifully coated, the bacon chunks tender and understated, and the tiny cheese kurds tender and moist. It's easily the best carbonara I've had and maybe the best pasta dish anywhere, ever. The penne with ragu is completely different but, in its way, equally good.
We are not finished. In the hands of Janine, tiramisu, another cliché dish, turns to gold. Usually served as a cake with custard between the layers, hers is mostly custard in a small bowl sprinkled with powered chocolate. Her version goes easy on the booze-soaked lady fingers. Magic. My turn. Somewhat lost in its small round bowl, a mold of vanilla ice cream embedded with chocolate slivers (stracciatella?) seems missing something. The bearded one, who pours about six ounces of beautiful hot, just-brewed, Italian coffee over the ice cream, provides the "something". More "Oh, My Gods" all around.
We have found food of this quality—and at this price—no more than two or three times in some 60 European trips and in 25 years of actively seeking such places for our newsletter, Gemütlichkeit, The Travel Letter for Germany, Austria & Switzerland and for this Website. Here's as much as we know about Toscana 21 (Lorenzo wrote this on the inside of a matchbook cover; there are no printed brochures, menus, cards, or credit card receipts): Toscana 21, Rue de Rollebeek 21, 1000 Bxl, Tel. 0032-02-5023621. It's in the Sablon district on the right side of the street that goes uphill from the bowling alley. We'll be back.