To the Manor Born

Several Italian expressions might come in handy at Tuscany Manor, the new Italian-inspired restaurant in Lee’s Summit. You might ask the server (who won’t be Italian, nor will he or she understand a word of it): “La cena era squisita. Cosa c’e per dessert?” or “Dinner was delicious. What’s for dessert?” And after a swift tour through the renovated 133-year-old farmhouse and a peek into the tidy little upstairs bathroom, you might be compelled to ask: “C’e un dottore in casa?” or “Is there a doctor in the house?”

No, the bathroom’s unexpected inhabitant is not the restaurant’s resident ghost (and there is one, according to co-owner Greg Hunsucker, who told me that the friendly poltergeist likes to shuffle around a set of cordial glasses in a locked case in the Wine Room) but the head and leg of a female mannequin lolling in the bathroom’s tub, surrounded by glass bubbles.

“It’s straight out of The Shining!” said my friend Bob, who discovered the oddball tableau and practically fell down the back staircase in his rush to report on it. Our companion, Fred, and I didn’t care — we were too busy gobbling up fat, crusty crab cakes drizzled with béarnaise ($7.50) and spooning a glorious artichoke bruschetta ($6.50), a purée of artichoke hearts and chopped tomatoes over toasted slices of bread.

“Il sole tuscana le ha cotto il cervello,” I told Bob — the Tuscan sun had cooked his brain. I didn’t believe the girl-in-the-bathtub story until I saw her for myself, but by that time, the oddball charm of Tuscany Manor had started working its magic on me.

In spirit, Tuscany Manor is closer to the memory of long-razed local restaurants located in mansions — such as the legendary Wishbone, which once stood at 45th and Main, or the Green Parrot, a former destination spot in Fairway — than the actual Tuscany romanticized in writer Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun. Hunsucker and his partner, Vincent Totta (of the V’s Italian Restaurant family), have renovated the long-neglected Greek Revival mansion of 19th-century farmer Robert Miller Fields — and though there’s minor Tuscany up at the old Fields farmhouse, there’s plenty of Manor, as in the Southern tradition of a gracious and hospitable home. In fact, with its tall white columns, fussy interiors, and summer balcony that looks out on a wide green lawn (the perfect spot to sip tall glasses of iced tea garnished with orange and fresh mint), Tuscany Manor could have been plucked right out of Gone With the Wind. The genteel dining rooms, each decorated in a different nostalgic motif (with china dolls or crystal chandeliers or garlands of plastic fruit), actually evoke the kind of homey, no-nonsense American restaurant that was so popular after World War II.

Hunsucker and Totta chose the name Tuscany Manor “to signify the Italian influence of the cuisine.” There is a broad Italian influence on a third of the menu’s dishes, yes. But Tuscan? No. The cuisine from the Tuscan region — the very heart of Italy — is more rustic and simple than the Neapolitan dishes offered here, such as the luscious slab of baked lasagna ($13) in a sea of basil-scented tomato sauce or the rich, slightly salty plate of cheese tortellini with smoked salmon ($17.50), all dappled in pesto cream sauce, fresh spinach, and bits of salty smoked salmon.

Even better are the American choices, including a garlic-seasoned, tender prime rib ($20 for a 14-ounce cut), which Fred raved about, and — on Sundays only — the classic American supper: a plate heaped with crispy, juicy fried chicken, a mound of real mashed potatoes, and country gravy. I wish the chicken were served more frequently, because there’s history in that bird: a century ago this house had quite a reputation as The Fields Chicken Dinner Farm — it lasted right up to 1926, when co-owner Lena Fields scandalized Lee’s Summit by running off with the dishwasher.

The menu also has plenty of hearty steaks and chops (like the Mediterranean-inspired tender loin-cut pork chops, served with a generous helping of grilled portabella mushrooms and brushed with a “Tuscany steak sauce” — an accompaniment not likely to be found in most Italian kitchens), as well as lobster tails broiled or deep-fried ($31.50 for small twin tails or $37.50 for a single 12-ounce tail). Much of the seafood here is char-broiled, including a filet of yellow fin tuna ($21) topped with a homemade peach salsa. There’s a remarkable red snapper ($22), given a luxe treatment here, baked inside a circle of parchment with shrimp, new peas, and baby onion in a broth of lemon and sherry. It arrives at the table like a gift from the oven, the paper brown and crispy, just waiting to be split open and devoured.

The dinners are served with a cup of fragrant, freshly made minestrone (loaded with cabbage, carrots, and lentils) or a salad — which on two visits was disappointing. “The lettuce is warm,” Fred said, grimacing as he skewered a limp piece of lettuce with his fork. It wasn’t warm, exactly, but room temperature on a hot night — which can be off-putting for most diners, who are accustomed to chilled salad plates and crispy, cold greens. After my second visit, when my lightly dressed Caesar salad again was brought out at room temperature, I asked Hunsucker if this was a Tuscan tradition.

“No,” he said, “our salads are usually served chilled.”

If the salads were tepid, the crusty loaf of bread, wrapped in cloth and served in a woven metal basket, was a nice surprise. Our server brought along a white bowl of olive oil and whipped out a cheese grater, then spun a handful of romano cheese into the oil and topped the mixture with a turn or two of cracked pepper. It’s a dipping sauce much nicer than butter, and probably healthier.

Also healthy was the serving staff — young, fresh-faced, and formally attired in clean white shirts and bow ties. And attentive, although their knowledge of Italian — and all the other dishes on the menu — could have been better. On one visit, our server coped with any problem by turning as blank as the mannequin upstairs.

“The lettuce is warm? Gee, that’s too bad,” she said, shrugging. Later, when Fred complained that the baked potato served with his prime rib was “as dry and tasteless as the Sahara,” she looked at him as if he were speaking in a Tuscan dialect.

“She might have offered to bring me another potato,” Fred grumbled, “or Tuscany steak fries, whatever they are.”

We agreed that most members of the strapping staff looked as if they had been recruited from a high school football team, especially when they huddled in the server’s station near the swinging kitchen door, just a hop and a skip from our table in The Pantry (a cozy little green room where the tables were swathed in vinyl and a long shelf was laden with knickknacks and canning jars packed with peaches and jam). Other rooms were more elegant or casual and bustling, such as the Osage Room, with its faux-cowhide vinyl tablecloths and cowboy-era relics.

“The place is way over-the-top,” said Fred, wandering through the upstairs dining rooms, “but it’s done so entertainingly, you can’t help but admire it.”

I know I did. I had driven by several bland chain restaurants along Douglas Street before making the turn that leads to the old farmhouse, and the drive had only added to my appreciation of what Hunsucker and the Totta family had done to restore this unlikely location, giving it life and energy and, at the very least, the essence of la dolce vita.

The place attracts an eclectic crowd too: Johnson Countians in expensive polo shirts and khakis or chic summer dresses; tattooed men in muscle shirts courting pretty women with great puffs of teased hair; elderly couples and families with amazingly well-behaved toddlers. I watched the parade of customers pass by our table as I sipped coffee and reached across the table to spoon up a bite of Fred’s tiramisu, the Italian dessert that’s now so ubiquitous, I’m surprised there’s no Sara Lee version. I’ve tasted so many quixotic variations on this theme (mostly oddball substitutions in the form of liqueurs, cheese, and pastry) that I now half expect the worst even before the dessert arrives. Tuscany Manor’s tiramisu is a pleasant little square of cocoa-dusted pastry but is so airy and bland it had all the pizzazz of a no-bake cheesecake mix.

“We do have other choices,” our server said brightly. “Apple cobbler or bread pudding made from a 100-year-old recipe.”

But we were all stuffed and had given up the ghost. But not the restaurant’s ghost.

“Have you ever seen it?” I asked our server.

“Ghost?” she said blankly, then giggled and scurried off into the kitchen.

Ah, spirits. Every 133-year-old restaurant should have one, Tuscan or otherwise. It hasn’t happened yet, but don’t be afraid if the ghost happens to show up at your table as soon as you spoon into your bowl of creamy seafood bisque. Simply look up and murmur, in your best Marcello Mastroianni voice: “Devi essere piu bella nell’oscurita.” You must be even more beautiful in the dark.

Categories: Food & Drink, Restaurant Reviews