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'Truly Tuscan' restaurant making new home in N.C.

June 12, 2006|by ROBERT SNYDER

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - It was Martinsburg's own little taste of Tuscany, but by month's end, the small Italian bistro with its picturesque storefront shelf adorned with stacks of canned Italian tomatoes and olive oil, bags of pasta and a basket of fresh lemons will shutter its doors and head south.

Toscana restaurateur Eva Visone said she and her husband, Francesco, are selling the corner restaurant at 301 W. King St. after five years of sauteing spinach and mushrooms, slicing tomatoes and serving up grilled chicken and fettuccine in sun-dried tomatoes, basil and cream. They are moving to North Carolina, where they plan to reopen in New Bern, her hometown.

Visone said the restaurant has a devoted customer base made up of people who are attracted to its distinctive cuisine, which is markedly different from standard American-style Italian fare.

"This is authentic, and truly Tuscan, cuisine," Visone said. "There is no veal parmesan, no lasagna, no meatballs. We spent five years building our clientele, who appreciate what we offer because you can get the other kind anywhere."

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The couple moved to the area in 2000 from Washington, D.C., after Francesco, who hails from the Tuscan city of Florence, accepted an offer to work as dining room manager at the Bavarian Inn in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

On a visit to downtown Martinsburg the next year to have their taxes prepared, they saw that the building that once housed The Grapevine was available, and they decided on a whim to set up shop there, Visone said.

And that colorful display shelf in the front window? It's no display, said Visone - it's the pantry.

"We don't have any storage space," she said. "We use everything that's there."

Visone said the couple still is looking for a buyer. At an asking price of $40,000, she calls their offer, which includes a full staff, a bargain.

"I've got a prep cook who Francesco has trained and a full staff," she said. "They'd never have to shut the doors. It's just a matter of stepping in."

The restaurant, which serves dinner daily except Sunday and lunch every day but Sunday and Monday, seats 40 in its two seating areas - a small room in the back where dinner is served on linen-covered tables, and a long, narrow front room next to the lattice-shrouded counter, behind which the couple sometimes entertains the lunchtime crowd with its verbal sparring and Francesco's burst of opinions.

"They like to listen to us argue and banter at each other, and hear him blurt out things in Italian," said Visone, adding that Francesco is a stubborn advocate of all things Tuscan.

"He's stuck to his guns on what he will and will not serve," she said.

The restaurant has not gone unnoticed in larger circles. It has received a three-star rating from the American Automobile Association, has been listed in the Canadian Travel Guide and even has been mentioned on the Food Network, Visone said.

Locally, the restaurant has been a regular supporter of Dine Out So That Others May Eat, an annual one-night event sponsored by the Congregational Cooperative Action Project, during which area establishments make a donation of 10 percent of a select evening's tab.

Visone said they will miss Martinsburg, where serving a meal to their customers has been much like entertaining guests at their home.

"We've met some fabulous people here," Visone said. "I've always looked at it like this is our home and it's like coming to eat in our home. It's like coming for dinner in our home."

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