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TusCA: Infusing Anaheim with Local, Artisanal Italian Eating

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For a local and--sorry, kids--non-Disneyland enthusiasts, once you exit the 5 Freeway in Anaheim and drive along the major thoroughfares it's a bit of a bleak landscape. Chain restaurants sit like islands inside large parking lots, while the broad and high edifices of multiple international hotel chains gobble up the terrain.

Recently, having been invited to make this very commute from Los Angeles to the OC, it was while navigating the lanes of Harbor Boulevard in what is technically Garden Grove, making my way to the Hyatt Regency Orange County, that I sensed I was losing faith. Bound for TusCA, I couldn't believe I was about to experience a taste of Italy's Tuscan region meshed with the best of California cuisine, prepared fresh and with local, seasonal ingredients. It just couldn't be...not here. No way.

Thankfully, I was about to find out how wrong I was.

The Hyatt Regency Orange County just underwent a $25 million renovation, and as part of the undertaking, opened TusCA as the house restaurant. Situated in the main lobby, the curved contours of the dining area are like a subtle wave hitting the broad expanse of the tiled floor. The glassed-in atrium of the entire main area reaches to the top of the hotel's 17-story tower of guestrooms, which admittedly gives the space a too-big and generic feel, echo-y like a shopping mall or convention center.

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It's a little calmer inside TusCA, where the small details like the bevy of glass balls hovering over one section draw you in and remind you that here is where you can shed your travel-weary woes, put aside the business trip blues, or finish a day of theme park frolicking with panache.

While this is still a chain hotel, and the third of three in a chain of TusCA restaurants inside California Hyatts, Chef Laura De Martin, with the help of Executive Chef Sayed Moalemi, was given the latitude to design the menu to suit her savvy of Tuscan cuisine, and the food is focused on local and seasonal. When one of our hosts mentioned that it was his honor to help tend to the rooftop TusCA garden, our surprise and intrigue prompted us to coax him into taking us up to the uppermost floor to check out the garden for ourselves. There, in a series of beautiful raised beds, while the winds whipped about, and with a sweeping view of Anaheim, grow basil, rosemary, tomatoes, and more. You can bet there's no such garden on the roof of the Outback Steakhouse across the street.

With Hyatt for 5 years now, Chef De Martin hails from northern Italy, and brings to the TusCA table her enthusiasm for beautiful meats and cheeses, vibrant greens, handmade pastas and pizzas, and of course, tomato sauce.

An Antipasti plate of fresh asparagus, hard and soft cheeses, and proscuitto di parma, paired with cornichons, fig jam, mustard, and honeycomb opened the meal and provided multiple ways to get a palate-awakening nibble of the many flavors of Italy. Chef De Martin urged us to pair the organic, local honeycomb with the hard, nutty, parmigiano, and that bite was an absolute revelation of sharp meets sweet. The beautiful jam and mustard--all made in house, of course.

Using available greens, a market salad with soulful roasted tomatoes and a Sweet Basil Vinaigrette and was a refreshing interlude ahead of a taste of their signature pizzas ($6/person family style). The TusCA team took research trips up the I-5 and into Los Angeles, to--where else?--Nancy Silverton's Mozza, to scope out their pizza-making set up. And so it is the same kind of oven that's installed at Mozza that produces the beautiful crunchy-soft crust of TusCA's pizza, of which my favorite was the Funghi Misti (mushroom) thanks to the plump, earthy mushrooms cradled in salty smooth cheese ($11-12 each).

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And that sauce? Chef De Martin and her crew take 3 days to make each batch--a labor of love that seems decidedly out of place in a hotel restaurant, but exemplifies their focus on thoughtful, real food. Straining, chopping, straining again, working in the herbs, then finally okaying it for use, the sweet, perfectly seasoned sauce is the perfect kiss between the pizza's crust and its oozing cheesy top.

Another savory course on our tasting menu included a tasting portion of Spinach-Ricotta gnocchi made from bread instead of the usual potato; the pliant green thumbs of dough came in a fontina veloute with organic sage ($13). These bites were followed by a meaty portion of flake-tender seared halibut, served with simple seasoning and paired with a refreshing, vibrant Fennel and Orange Salad to make for a light, but satisfying entree ($22).

For dessert, coffee and ice cream came together in the always-welcome duo of an affogato, with a cup of espresso awaiting your hands to spoon in the vanilla gelato and sprinkle with shaved chocolate ($5).

Okay, this is where the "get real" moment comes in. Few of us Los Angeles-area residents are likely to make the trek to Anaheim just to have dinner, in a hotel, no less. But if I may submit, TusCA is the perfect "back pocket" restaurant to have in your arsenal, to counter any dining out devastation you might experience with your out-of-town guests who are headed to Disneyland or Knott's, or for whatever occasion you find yourself in along Harbor Boulevard, driving that big-box blah-fest of national chain restaurants.

TusCA proves that not only is there great hope for big corporations using the micro-approach to serving good food, but that there is great hope for those who wish to have a more unique eating experience in a place where same-ness is de riguer. Thanks to Chef De Martin and the TusCA team, the local, artisanal, and seasonal has a home at--of all places--the Hyatt.