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Destination dining in Tuscany

There are meals, and then there are meals. Meals so good it turns eating into an event, induces long conversations and lasts for hour after enjoyable hour. These are the meals the Mouth likes best — and had recently at Rustic Kitchen.

While the wonderful company of my dining companion Contessa was a large part of the evening, the food was by far the shining star. From the first bite of the homemade focaccia bread to the last scrape of chocolate drizzle on our dessert plate, Rustic Kitchen delivered.

Just mere steps away from the dinging slots of Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs, Rustic Kitchen feels light years away from the casino’s hustle and bustle. As we sat in a cozy booth in the back amid other diners, Contessa and I felt like we were transported to an Italian bistro. Despite how large and airy the restaurant is, it somehow manages to still be intimate; I think the many secluded half-circle booths and gorgeous lighting fixtures and décor have a lot to do with that.

As we began to peruse the menu, the Italian spring rolls ($9) caught my eye, mostly because they come with provolone fondue. Intrigued, I suggested to Contessa that we start our meal with them, and she eagerly agreed. Other appetizer choices include portobello mushroom pizza, tuna tartare and arancini, fried risotto balls stuffed with homemade mozzarella.

Rustic Kitchen’s entrée menu is a bit smaller than I expected. When I think Italian restaurant, I just imagine a miles-long menu packed with pasta and traditional Italian dishes, don’t you? However, the menu is diverse enough to cause a conundrum when trying to make up your mind. With fish dishes like tilapia francaise and balsamic-glazed pan-roasted salmon to 10 handcrafted pastas and four steak offerings, I needed some extra time to decide.

Contessa, on the other hand, immediately decided on the chicken marsala ($18) from the Classics section. Other Classics include chicken and sausage calabrese and parmesan-crusted veal cutlets.

I was torn between the orecchiette pasta with sausage and broccolini ($17) — sweet fennel sausage sautéed with sun-dried tomatoes, broccolini, chili flakes and parmesan cheese — and the pan-roasted sea bass ($28). In the end, the sea bass sounded too good to pass up, plus it was a type of fish I’d never tried before.

Our server Angela delivered homemade focaccia bread with white bean garlic dip, a welcome change from tried-and-true olive oil that can often be found on restaurant tables these days. Both were tasty, and the dip didn’t have an overpowering garlicky flavor that could have been carried over to the rest of our meal.

The spring rolls, cut into four sizeable pieces, arrived, and Contessa and I tucked in quickly. Filled with sweet Italian sausage, caramelized onions, roasted red peppers and mozzarella cheese, they were wonderful and not greasy at all. The sausage’s flavor made itself known right off the bat, and the provolone fondue had a soft, mushroom-y taste which was creamy and not overly gooey. As delicious as the cheese sauce was, it was the marinara that truly heightened the roll’s flavor. Not usually a fan of marinara — especially when there’s melted cheese in arm’s reach — I found I couldn’t get enough of the sweet sauce.

Shortly after we finished off the spring rolls, our dinners came. Contessa’s chicken marsala featured two pounded-out breasts and an abundance of wild mushrooms accompanied by a zucchini, tomato, red pepper, sautéed onion and yellow squash medley and mashed potatoes. The chicken was tender, and its sauce had a thicker consistency, almost like a gravy, with a delicate marsala taste.

My cornmeal-crusted sea bass was an adequate filet atop an artichoke, pancetta, black olive and tomato salad accompanied by rosemary-roasted potatoes and a lemon chive butter sauce. The fish, slightly crusty outside and buttery soft inside, was succulent. The salad, which was slightly acidic from the artichoke and slightly salty from the pancetta, was a perfect contrast to the subtle butter sauce. The crisp potatoes were strung on a charred sprig of rosemary, which made for a nice presentation. I savored each and every bite of this dish.

Because Contessa and I enjoyed everything so far, we didn’t want the evening to end. She ordered coffee, and I talked her into dessert, bypassing traditional tiramisu and gelato for chocolate flourless cake ($9). Contessa’s coffee quickly arrived, served on its own little platter complete with a chocolate biscotti cracker. It was a very classy touch we both loved. Our dessert, unfortunately, wasn’t as swift, taking a good 20 minutes to make its appearance, but luckily it was worth the wait. Very mousse-like, it was flanked by a chocolate biscotti cracker and a scoop of chocolate ice cream. Because of its delay, management removed the dessert from our bill.

Aside from dessert, our meal was perfectly paced. Neither Contessa nor I had to request an iced tea refill — Angela automatically brought one before we needed it, an eye for detail many servers in NEPA sadly do not posses. Plus, both managers checked in on each table, which brought the restaurant’s good service to a higher level. Too often diners are made to feel like they’re a nuisance, whereas at Rustic Kitchen, you’re made to feel like you’re family — and the only table there.

From its impressive wine selection to its Tuscan villa vibe to the “In the Kitchen” cooking show with Mountain Top native Chef Kate Gabriele, Rustic Kitchen provides a remarkable dining experience. To me, it’s “destination dining” because you get so much more than a just a meal.

• Rustic Kitchen Bistro & Bar

Inside Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs

1280 Route 315, Plains Twp.

570.824.6600

www.poconodowns.com/dining

Hours:

Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m. daily

Dinner: Sunday-Tuesday, 4-9 p.m.; Wednesday-Saturday, 4-11 p.m.

Bar: Sunday-Tuesday, 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.; Wednesday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-midnight

All major credits accepted

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