Everyone I spoke with at Tuscan Table seemed determined to educate me about one thing: what the restaurant is not. From the host who declared, “We’re not your typical mall food,” as she brought us silverware, to our server, who announced that the new fast-casual Italian spot “isn’t part of a big chain,” and “doesn’t dump everything in a deep fryer,” every characterization was made in reverse – through negative example.

When I chatted with executive chef Lee Skawinski, formerly of Cinque Terre and Vignola in Portland, he did the same, telling me: “We’re not shooting from the hip here. We’re trying to stay within the parameters that we’ve set for ourselves: classic, simple Italian. We’re not about too many ingredients on a dish.”

To me, it all felt a little defensive, perhaps tinged with a shadow of insecurity.

Of course, I understood why. Site your restaurant – the third member of a family that includes Tuscan Bistro in Freeport and Royal River Grill House in Yarmouth – directly next door to a shopping mall, in a building that once housed the Pizza Hut Italian Bistro, and people will inevitably saddle you with their own preconceptions. Worse, if you aspire to what Skawinski called “a little more of a high-end experience,” big-box prejudices can be deadly.

But for Tuscan Table, that work to refocus diners is unnecessary. All it takes to pulverize any lingering assumptions about the place is to step through the front door and let Nicola Manganello’s magnificent interior design do the talking. Her swank reimagining of the 6,250-square-foot space is both modern and inviting, with plenty of soft furnishings like overstuffed throw pillows and high-backed upholstered booth seating to offset harder elements like steel-topped tables and wood-clad pendant lights suspended from the ceiling like laser-cut cocoons.

Everything in the dining room orbits around a huge marble bar shaped so much like a racetrack that it prompted our server to muse, “I wonder how many times I’d have to walk around it to make a mile.” At its center stands the visual focus of the space, a serpentine row of wooden shelving, stacked at least 15 feet high with hundreds of liquor bottles glinting like stained glass. Say a silent prayer for the person responsible for dusting them.

“It’s a different style from anything else in Maine, a different level of design,” Skawinski said. “You come to the mall to get here, but you wouldn’t even know it when you’re in the building. It has a transporting feel to it, like giving yourself a break from what’s outside.”

There’s a deliberateness to nearly every visual detail in the restaurant, right down to the simplicity of employee outfits – front-of-house staff dress in solid black, back-of-house in white. It certainly makes staffers easy to spot. And once you start paying attention, you notice that there are an awful lot of them, even for a 160-seat restaurant – 35 black-clad servers, hosts and bussers, and another 30 white-clad line cooks, pizza chefs and prep cooks. Toward the end of a busy night, it can feel as if employees significantly outnumber patrons.

Depending on when you go, the front-of-house staff can be gracious and friendly or downright neglectful. One genial server on a slow Sunday evening paused at our table to tell me about the four old friends who sat reminiscing at a table in her section for nearly five hours. “Campers: That’s what we call parties who stay for a long time,” she said quietly, with a little laugh. “I don’t want to bother them because they’re having a lot of fun. But it is getting late, so I hope they brought their tents, and maybe one for me!”

The next week, during the height of a Saturday dinner rush, everyone in black appeared to be in a fugue state of manic, high-priority side-work, most of which took place at the station in the middle of the dining room. That evening, we rarely saw our own server – who didn’t bring us knives or napkins until long after we had finished our appetizers – but we were hypnotized watching the front-of-house team gingerly sort still-steaming silverware with their bare hands, yipping in pain every few seconds. The spell was broken when we saw a server balance two dirty plates on the pile of clean cutlery, where she scraped someone’s half-eaten pasta into a to-go box.

Consistency is just as much of a problem for food and drinks at Tuscan Table. In general, neither has yet caught up to the restaurant’s sophisticated atmosphere, although all the tools are in place to make that happen, including a wood grill and two enormous Le Panyol ovens – one for pizzas and one for appetizers.

A few menu items seem poorly conceived, including two cocktails, the Italian Old Fashioned ($13) and Fig Mule ($12), that are cloyingly sweet. Or the Roma cauliflower ($9), an unresolved appetizer that doesn’t quite know if it wants to be a Caesar salad or a plate of roasted Romanesco cauliflower. Worse, the cairn of house-toasted croutons is out of place and tricky to eat on such an overloaded plate. It is a visually attractive dish, but it left us wondering if it was supposed to be photographed or eaten.

Others seemed hamstrung by imperfect execution, falling short of Skawinski’s ambitions to bring “high-caliber dining” to South Portland. Take the spicy pork and beef meatballs ($9.50) with a bold, Sicilian-inspired reduction of vinegar, tomato and currants, and a drizzle of garlic-parsley oil. Each bite was tangy, vibrant and a little peppery, but the balls themselves were unpleasantly dense. Or the porchetta pizza ($17), a tomato-and-mozzarella pie topped with fresh arugula and atom-thin slices of rolled, stuffed pork roast that the restaurant imports from Italy. My dinner guest and I loved the blistered crust but found most of the flavors squelched by a too-generous drizzle of balsamic vinegar.

Bartender Scott McGovern retrieves a bottle of wine from the towering vault.

In much the same way, the subtle sweetness of egg yolk and piney spark of black pepper were drowned out by too much pancetta in the spaghetti carbonara ($17), a dish made with homemade square-cut pasta that was oddly rubbery, more like alkali-treated ramen noodles than delicate fresh Italian pasta.

Even our dessert of profiteroles ($6.50), filled with salted caramel and espresso crunch gelatos, was a bit off-kilter, thanks to choux buns that lacked the custardy interior webbing that usually makes them such a delight.

Fortunately, you’ll also find some gems on the menu at Tuscan Table. One, a crisp breaded bone-in pork chop topped with a pert, acidic red-cabbage slaw ($21) managed the improbable task of feeling both indulgent and astonishingly light – the sort of plate you might order in April or August. So too the floral lemon-thyme tart ($6.50): a flaky sweet-crust pastry shell filled with a puckeringly tart, homemade lemon curd.

Tuscan Table’s spicy meatballs, with a Sicilian-inspired reduction of vinegar, tomato and currants, and a drizzle of garlic-parsley oil.

On the brawnier side, the fettuccine with braised brisket ragu and sheep’s milk ricotta ($19) was a winner, its pinky-wide strips of homemade pasta cooked just al dente and saturated through and through with tomato flavor. If I were especially hungry, I’d happily order it along with a super-savory appetizer of mushrooms on soft polenta ($12) and a slice of three-layer chocolate cake ($6.50), infused with coffee and daubed with a phenomenally glossy milk chocolate buttercream.

Perhaps my favorite item on Tuscan Table’s menu was served as an accompaniment to the salmon grilled on hard oak logs sourced from Durham ($27). While the fish itself was invitingly smoky, if left on the grill a bit too long, the real star was the toasted rye-flour spaetzle – boiled to a perfect tackiness that adhered tightly to slivers of pickled onion, dill, chervil and roasted fennel-and-onion dressing. Quite simply, a gorgeous little pasta.

I found myself wishing for a warm bowl on its own and wondered why spaetzle didn’t merit its own spot on the winter pasta list. Only when I took a cue from the Tuscan Table staff and thought about these irregular egg noodles in reverse did I figure it out. Toasted-rye spaetzle may be a delight, but there’s one thing they are not: Italian.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

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Twitter: @AndrewRossME