Rarely have I seen Portland’s rabble of dining denizens run so fast and so furiously to a brand-new restaurant as they have to the Tuscan Table in South Portland at the Maine Mall.  The Mall?  Yes, you read right—smack dab in the anonymous canyons of retail melancholia with throngs of perambulating polyester-clad regulars hugging the promenades of this far-flung haven for shopaholics.  In fact, on a recent evening late in the dinner hour I witnessed the crowd still cramming the entry way as though the adjacent chain restaurants were all forsaken to be seduced by this newcomer.

The Tuscan Table

To explain this phenomenon, you just must take in this gorgeous place, which moved into the former Pizza Hut space next to Books a Million and Macy’s.  It wasn’t merely renovated but went through a makeover so extreme as to make a sow’s ear into the proverbial silk purse wrapped in ermine.

The downstairs diningroom and circular bar as seen from above

The space is more brasserie than bistro.  Think Fore Street gone modern. There’s not a whiff of the trendy but rather it displays the decorator’s touch of the flamboyant outfitted in bold strokes: a dazzling two-story space with seating at tables and banquettes, the circular bar and on the second floor more of the same.  The lighting fixtures and the glassware glistening over the bar are meant to impress, a stunning statement indeed.

Clockwise: second floor dining room and the bar downstairs with open kitchen in the background

None of this is surprising because the restaurant was designed by Nicola Manganello of Nicola’s Home, the princess of interior décor who’s given us the remake of the Royal River Grill House, Tuscan Brick Oven Bistro and the indefatigably sundry collection of spec houses punctuated with their multi-columned porticos and varied window styles of every stripe from top to bottom–Greater Portland’s version of the McMansion sensibility that dot the Foreside.  Thankfully the Tuscan Table has its unique identity.

Chef Lee Skawinski

But the real distinction is the pedigree of its executive chef, Lee Skawinski.  He made his formidable mark at the original Cinque Terre, which at the time was one of the most gracious white-clothed restaurants serving wonderful northern Italian fare well beyond the typical red sauce so pervasive at the time in Portland.

The dazzling bottle-studded bar ]; classic Negroni

I’ve been to Tuscan Table for both lunch and dinner and every dish was a marvel of simplicity and flavor that typifies Tuscan cuisine. From the wood-oven grilled pizzas (not terribly thin crusted) to truly toothy-al dente house made pasta with rich sauces; the uber-creamy burrata gracing starter plates and a bevy of platters sporting cured meats or artisanal cheeses.

Clockwise: spaghetti carborara; cheese platter;cured meats platter and margherita pizza

The drinks menu is replete with fine local spirits such as the blood-orange infused Bar Hill Gin in a classic Negroni perfect to accompany the antipasti like raw shellfish and chilled seafood

At lunch I reveled in a fine version of spaghetti carbornara.  It wasn’t as egg-rich as other examples of this very luxurious dish but had subdued textural interest and loaded with the smoky nuances of crispy pancetta and gratings of grana padano.

Our table of five also enjoyed the salumi platter of cured meats masterfully arranged on the board that included mortadella, fennel salumi, capocollo, speck, bresaola and spicy sopressata; the cheese platter was well-curated, too, with artisanal selections of gorgonzola, pecorino fresco, burrata, toma, taleggio with a delicious sultana mostarda with Maine honey and spiced nuts.

At the dinner hour still jam packed with new diners arriving well into the eveining

At dinner I loved the burrata salad, with its flecks of prosciutto wrapped around the radicchio and curly endive, the sultana mostarda and fried sage.  We also enjoyed the fritto with seared baby scallops and fritters filled with creamy whitefish, little rounds of lightly breaded calamari and artichoke aioli.

Burrata salad and frittoplate

A good indicator of an Italian restaurant’s mettle is its chicken parmigiana, which on this menu seemed out of place but was nonetheless best in its class.  A Statler cut breast of chicken is marinated first in basil infused buttermilk and its crispy outer shell held up under a cherry tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella set over a judicious helping of spaghetti pomodoro. My dinner companion’s ravioli was brilliantly flavorful, moistened in brown  butter and cloaked in the same cherry tomato sauce and filled with swiss chard.

Chicken parmigiano and swiss chard ravioli

Before heading up the Tuscan Table, Skawinski held court in the Aurora kitchens until it was sold recently.  He took with him the pastry chef Patrick Jones whose luscious cakes and pastries graced the Aurora counter for years and now tempt the palate at Tuscan Table.  Other personnel also followed him to South Portland, which helps to have the kitchen run like clockwork.

Clockwise: chocolate layer cake; macaron; almond cake and the dessert table

Dont’ skip dessert because pastry chef Jones has some spectular sweet offerings. The almond cake with olive oil and citrus is a study in simplicity with the richness of its ingredients incredibly blended.  And the chocolate cake is s devil’s food delight blending the flavors of coffee, chocolate, buttermilk melded under a dome of chocolate buttercream.

First floor dining room and bar

The restaurant is barely a week old, but it seems like it’s been there forever; the well-trained staff keeps it all going.  This certainly is a restaurateur’s marvel of good work and efforts,  and I’m glad that it has established itself so quickly.

The Tuscan Table, 390 Gorham Rd., South Portland, ME 207-536-0240 www.tuscantablemaine.com

Rating: Superbly crafted Tuscan style fare in a gogeous setting, well worth it in every way

Ambiance: Big, bold brasserie style dining

Tables: Comfortable, large, well spaced; great bar dining too

Service: Excellent, well-trained staff

Parking: Plentiful on site in adjacent parking lot

$$$: Expensive enough