Prego Ristorante is an OC institution

It’s been a few years since my last visit to Prego, a northern Italian restaurant nestled in between office buildings in Irvine. At lunch time, the restaurant is bustling with business people trying to clinch a deal, and, those wanting to impress a client.

So when I received an invitation to check out its “Spring into Summer” menu, I eagerly accepted. I remember the unfortunate fire at the restaurant not too long ago, and when I walked in, I was expecting a change, but was relieved to see they have kept it relatively the same, except for an upgrade to the existing structure.

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We were welcomed by owners Tony and Ruth Bedi, as well as their son Devin, as we joined the rest of the media party on the back patio for hors d’oeuvres while sipping on Sofia blanc de blancs.

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After mingling for a little while, we moved into the private room for our meal prepared by Chef Ugo Allesina, a 25 year culinary veteran who has been with Prego since July 2000.

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We started with Asparagus Delizia, a perfect example of simple hearty Italian cuisine using fresh ingredients. Grilled duo of asparagus — both green and white — are wrapped in Parma prosciutto and finished with shaved parmesan cheese, organic arugula and truffle oil. I like how Chef Ugo has featured white asparagus, a wonderful spring time produce only available for a very short period each year.

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Our primo piatto of Risotto alla Sovaccese was a perfectly al dente bowl of delicate arborio rice, porcini mushrooms, fontina cheese with hints of fresh rosemary. A tad under-seasoned for me, but nothing extra cheese and a touch of salt wasn’t able to fix.

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Cotechino e Lenticchie is Chef Ugo’s homemade Italian sausage with white wine served on a bed of stewed lentils and whole grain mustard sauce. Traditionally eaten during new year’s, Chef Ugo’s sausage possessed wonderful flavors, although texturally, I would have liked a little more contrast. Lentils, also a traditional accoutrement, were hearty and delicious with the mustard sauce adding a good acidity to the dish.

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To finish, we were presented with Tronco ai Cioccolati, a puffed pastry filled with white and dark chocolate mousse served with creme anglaise and raspberry sauce. Chef Ugo explains that this is a dessert close to his heart and reflective of the Piedmont area where he is from. It reminded me of desserts I used to eat as a child when my parents brought us out for a fancy meal.

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Prego is an Orange County institution which has withstood challenges and time. It is still one of the restaurants where business deals are made and anniversaries are celebrated.

This week I have a $50 gift certificate courtesy of Prego Ristorante for one lucky reader to win. Please leave a comment with your FULL name for a chance to enter. Tell me your memories of Prego, or why you’d like to visit. Contest ends Monday, a winner will be chosen and announced on Tuesday.

Prego Ristorante
18420 Von Karman Avenue
Irvine, CA 92612
Tel: 949-552-1333

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fine dining quality at Ceppo

When a friend invited us to join him at dinner, I had absolutely no expectations whatsoever. All I knew was that it was an Italian restaurant in Huntington Beach with a Japanese chef at its helm. Located next door to an ostentatious MMA studio, you might miss Ceppo completely if you blinked. In fact, the restaurant itself is so understated you might actually wonder if you’re at the right place. There is no decor or ambiance, but my friend assures me the food will speak for itself.

Since our dinner host is a regular here, and a Huntington Beach resident, he took the liberty to arrange our menu with Chef Tomi for that evening, I had no control over any of it, nor did I know the prices (as it would have been rude to ask). However, glancing at the menu, there was nothing over $18, so an educated guess would surmise that it was nothing but reasonable.

An amuse bouche of fava beans and grilled artichoke arrives. I love fava beans as it brings back memories of my grandmother who loved these broad beans, what I knew them as growing up.

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When Uni Flan hit the table, I gasped at the sheer sight of it, served in an uni half shell, my taste-buds already salivating at the thought of the first spoonful. Those of you who know me will understand why my heart was palpitating at the sight of this. I have an obsession with uni and anything that looks like this was already making my mouth salivate, even before I had a chance to put it into my mouth.

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I’ve had Japanese style Italian food before and love the fact that it’s usually very light even when cream is involved. The Lentil Soup here is a good representation of that fact. Visually, it looks creamy but is never cloying or viscous on the palate.

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I rarely order Halibut on the menu because usually it tends to be on the tough side due to the low fat content in this fish. However, I was pleasantly surprised at how moist and flaky the fish was. Perhaps it was the very thin slices of zucchini wrapped around it? Regardless, the flavors were very well thought-out with a sun-dried tomato sauce and a parsley oil drizzle.

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Our next course of roasted Jidori Chicken was also a hit. Tender, juicy chicken is well seasoned and prepared immaculately with hints of rosemary. Simple and delicious.

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I am always impressed when a restaurant’s chef creates his own desserts without the help of a pastry chef.

We were presented with four desserts. Interesting, everyone had his or her own favorites, although, never the same one. Mixed Fruit Gelee was light and refreshing with champagne as the base for the gelee.

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I loved the Cheesecake, which, in true Japanese style, was light and airy and absolutely delightful.

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Chocolate Cake with black pepper ice cream was definitely interesting and all of us marveled at the ice cream with a kick.

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But my favorite was the Kabocha Mousse, a flan if you will, created with the ubiquitous Japanese squash used in soups and pastas alike. I loved how subtle the sweetness level was, almost non-existent, allowing the pure kabocha flavors to shine through.

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During dessert, Chef Tomi appeared out of the kitchen and I was able to chat with him a little. Trained in France, Chef Tomi’s resume includes working under Wolfgang Puck at Spago and Chinois. I highly urge you to go give Ceppo a try. The decor might not be impressive, but the food certainly is.

Ceppo Italian Cuisine
7391 Warner Avenue
Huntington Beach, CA 92647
Tel: 714-375-6145

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Fig & Olive spring menu

Spring is definitely in the air when restaurants are previewing their seasonal spring menu. Fig & Olive opened not long ago at Fashion Island and although I’ve been to the restaurant several times, I have not written anything on it. Therefore, when I was invited to check out the new menu items recently, I thought it was time to share what we sampled with everyone.

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Before anything, a plate of focaccia was brought out to the table with three olive oils from different regions for us to try.

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The lunch menu offers a generous selection of Crostini ($12/3pcs) and we were presented with three: burrata, tomato, herbs, balsamic; cured salmon, radish, cucumber, yogurt, dill; carrot, ricotta. My favorite was naturally the burrata with the carrot and ricotta a close second.

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I was so happy that the next course Roasted Baby Beet with Burrata Salad ($17) had a huge serving of the luscious burrata lurking underneath the greenery since the little bit on the crostini was a tease on my palate, but didn’t satiate. The beautiful vibrantly hued roasted beets from Babe farm were absolutely gorgeous. Together with spinach, toasted hazelnut, orange segment and heirloom cherry tomatoes, it was definitely spring on a plate. Dressed perfectly in a raspberry aged balsamic vinaigrette, it was a huge hit all around.

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Unfortunately, my photo of Crab & Heirloom Tomato turned out dismally and does not justify how savory and mouthwatering it really was. Jumbo lump crab, heirloom cherry tomato, garlic cilantro, shallot and harissa with avocado basil tapenade was one of those things I wanted more of.

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My table-mates and I decided to order different entrees so we could get a taste of a good variety. Salmon Tartine ($14) was a gorgeous open face sandwich with beautifully vibrant cured salmon served on Kenter farm toasted whole wheat bread. Accoutrements of dill cucumber yogurt, radish and tomato were refreshing. Add to that a side of arugula salad and the distinctively flavor of Arbequina Olive oil, voila, a great option for a light lunch.

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I’m not a goat cheese fan, but I took a bite of the Zucchini Blossom & Goat Cheese Ravioli ($26). A generous portion of house-made goat cheese raviolis with zucchini emulsion and tomato confit, the flavors are reflective of the season it represents. I didn’t care for the crispy zucchini blossom which was way too heavily coated completely masking its delicate nature.

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I loved the White Sea Bass ($25) I selected. Two pieces of white sea bass marinated with lemon thyme is flaky with a nice crispy skin. A colorful bounty of carrot, asparagus, celery root puree and heirloom potato charmoula complete this tasty plate.

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The restaurant gets very busy so reservations are recommended. Valet parking is available for $6.

Fig & Olive
151 Newport Center Drive
Newport Beach, CA 92660
Tel: 949-877-3005

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Al Bacio successfully delivers authentic Italian

In December of last year, we visited Al Bacio for a media preview. There were so many people and the meal felt rushed and I was uninspired by the whole experience. I generally do not like to gauge a restaurant by a media tasting alone anyway, preferring to return again on my own at a later date. By visiting again several months later also gives the restaurant and its staff a chance to work out any opening hiccups they might have had during the preview.

So we returned recently to re-visit Chef Christian Simionato, previously sous chef at Pelican Hill Resort’s Andrea Ristorante, and give it another try. We find Al Bacio offering a menu of dishes showcasing the best of regional Italian cuisine with a myriad of top quality ingredients imported directly from Italy.

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While we perused the menu, a basket of bread arrives. There is a house-made focaccia and surprise surprise, slices of a rustic loaf from Orange County’s premier bakery, OC Baking Company! When asked why he didn’t source bread right there in LA, Simionato’s response was “I give my customers the best of every ingredient, so why not the bread also”.

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An amuse bouche of gianchette (whitebait) with artichoke is served in a jar with a thin piece of crisp bread. It was definitely an “amuse” to my “bouche” with its tangy bursts tantalizing my tastebuds.

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I love octopus and have been known to order it whenever it is on the menu. Therefore, it was a no brainer that Polipo all Griglia ($15) would be the logical choice to kick the meal off with. Octopus, which has first been braised, is finished off on the grill for a char, intensifying its flavors tremendously. Paired with a red pepper bagnetto — red pepper sauce — and a lightly dressed mixed green salad, make sure you gather all three components for each mouthful as they work together in perfect harmony.

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Scallo Scottate in Padella ($16) is a dish of seared scallops with Sicilian caponata and topped with to-die-for crispy pancetta. No additional words are required.

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If you’ve never had white asparagus, you won’t know how delicate and sublime it tastes. However, if you have, then its distinctively aromas will hit you immediately. Vellutata di Asparagi Bianchi ($13) is a white asparagus soup finished with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and topped with a sauteed spot prawn. We mmm-ed and ahh-ed with each spoonful and I delighted in sucking on the spot prawn head drawing out every last bit of its umami goodness.

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If you don’t order the way we do when you dine out, and you’ve only a three course meal planned (or just an entree), I highly suggest a pasta dish. Tagliatelle al Ragu di Agnello ($18) is a good choice simply because the tagliatelle is made in-house and served with a lamb ragu enveloped in a rich hearty savory sauce.

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Or, if you’re looking for a “secondi” course as they do in Italy, Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe ($16) is perfect for you to share. A simple, yet utterly delicious spaghetti with pecorino and black pepper, you will want to eat mouthful after mouthful, and won’t be able to stop.

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Moving on to entrees, I was intrigued by Orata “al Cartoccio” ($30), a whole sea bream “al cartoccio”, meaning it is wrapped in parchment paper like “en papillote” in French cuisine. The fish is de-boned and stuffed with zucchini, cherry tomatoes, black Taggiasca olives into its cavity. The result is moist, flaky flesh with the beautiful amalgamation of flavors from the vegetables. I ate the entire fish — well, almost!

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Meat lovers should find Guancia di Manzo Brasata al Barbaresco ($29) incredibly satisfying. Beef cheeks braised in Barbaresco (wine) is so tender you wouldn’t need a knife to cut it. The “mulino sobrino” polenta is light, perfectly textured for me, although a little too thin for my dining companion. The sauce is rich and I wanted more of it to accompanying the sauteed mushrooms with.

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The unassuming restaurant sits on the very busy Sunset Blvd. Drive a little faster and you will miss it completely. However, if you take a moment and step inside, you’ll find some heartwarming and very stellar dishes that will surely surprise and tantalize you.

Al Bacio
8741 Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90069
Tel: 310-657-1182

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the best Italian in Orange County

*****I apologize ahead of time for the less than perfect photos in this post*****

It’s been a year since I last visited Maré Culinary Lounge, but I have not forgotten about it. They even made it onto my “best of 2013″ list and in my book, it is still the best Italian restaurant in Orange County! Therefore, when it was time to celebrate my friend Brenda’s birthday, there was no doubt in my mind it was time to introduce this group of gals to Chef Alessandro Pirozzi’s incredible cuisine.

The restaurant was jam packed the night of our visit, and boy was I glad I made a reservation! The gals started off with some cocktails, and since I was the designated driver, it was my night to refrain from drinking.

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A basket of focaccia was dropped off at the table with some pesto dipping sauce while we perused the menu, but it was really difficult because there was too much we wanted to try.

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We started off with some Salumi e Formaggi ($26/6 items) and were shocked at how generous the board was. Our selection included wild boar salami, parma prosciutto, duck prosciutto, burricotta (burrata stuffed with ricotta, black lava sea salt, rosemary, EVO, arugula), sottocenere (ash aged truffle infused Italian cheese) and scamorze (smoked mozzarella wrapped in speck, baked, bruschetta, tomatoes). My favorites were the burricotta and scamorze.

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I’d eaten a fish carpaccio here before and so Seabass Carpaccio ($18) was a must. Thinly sliced seabass is placed on a heated plate which cooks it slightly. It is then topped with fennel, arugula, spicy Calabrian chili, sea salt and drizzled with sorrento lemon infused extra virgin olive oil. I love the layers of flavors in this dish. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get a good photo for this dish.

Another favorite is Polipo Mediterranean ($14) of paper thin slices of house made braised octopus carpaccio, bell peppers, black Sicilian lava salt and imported caper berries. Honestly, this is not a dish I want to share with others because it is THAT good!

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If you’re a fan of pasta I highly suggest you order one of the house made pastas on the menu. In fact, I insist you order one. My favorite is always Limoncello infused Radiatori ($24), Maré’s signature pasta filled with bright flavors and dotted with tender Maine lobster chunks in a Pinot Grigio fresh local lemon sauce. If you like citrus, this will absolutely knock your socks off.

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Short Rib Ravioli with butter truffle sauce was one of the specials of the night and I can’t even begin to describe how mindblowingly good this was. I am not a fan of ravioli because usually the pasta is always either too hard, or there is too much of it. Chef Alessandro’s ravioli are like pillowy clouds and I literally closed my eyes when I put it into my mouth.

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We all wanted to try Mushroom Risotto ($16) even though we were pretty stuffed by now. We only managed a few bites of this incredible dish of perfectly al dente imported Italian Carnaroli rice, wild mushrooms and creamy gorgonzola fondue.

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We also tried two entrees, the venison and branzino which I wasn’t able to capture good enough photos for.

I was so glad I chose Maré Culinary Lounge for this birthday dinner because everyone loved it so much they even bought portions of Chef Alessandro’s fresh house made pastas to take home with them. I only hope I have time to return again soon and not wait a whole year for it to happen!

Maré Culinary Lounge
696 S Coast Hwy
Laguna Beach, CA 92651
Tel: 949-715-9581

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Valentine’s Day at Pizzeria Ortica

If you are on the fence regarding what to do on Valentine’s Day, here’s a suggestion! Pizzeria Ortica is offering a special menu with items only available that day. Executive Chef Justin Miller has created some great small plates and entrees for this special day and you won’t be subjected to a prix fixe menu like so many restaurants will be doing on February 14th.

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I was able to preview some of the dishes featured on the Valentine’s Day menu including Housemade Ricotta-filled Mozzarella ($9), an insanely flavor-popping appetizer heavily scented with lemon filling my olfactory senses with citrusy aromas. Whole leafs of Italian parsley and basil accompanies as well as breadcrumbs for crunch.

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If you’re a fan of pasta, look no further than the Cavatelli ($16), nodules of al dente pasta in a borlotti bean puree with morsels of bone marrow dotted within. Beautiful rounds of thinly sliced scarlet turnip grace the plate and crispy pork cracklin’ tops the dish. The decadence of bone marrow adds another dimension to the already creamy puree while the turnip adds a freshness to each mouthful.

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There is also a house-cured bresaola on the menu — not quite ready yet on the day of my visit, but Chef Justin showed it to me anyway.

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One of the entrees offered is a Braised Beef Shank ($35 for two) with the complex flavors of sofritto and topped with a bone marrow gremolata to-die-for. The entire shank sits on a bed of polenta and a very generous portion even for two.

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If you want to order off the a la carte menu, it is also available and includes pizzas from the wood-fire oven such as Escarole ($16) with fontina, mozzarella, escarole, Crimini mushrooms and Calabrian chilis. Escarole is from the endive family, but much milder than the endive itself. It reminds me of a cross between romaine and endive. This vegetarian pizza is so tasty you won’t even think about the fact that there is no meat on it.

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Reservations are highly recommended! Also, keep an eye out for Pizzeria Ortica’s during Orange County Restaurant Week, I am excited to try the porchetta dip in the works for that menu!

Pizzeria Ortica
650 Anton Blvd
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Tel: 714-445-4900

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