jazz and more at Spaghettini

As usual, my skepticism sets in when I hear “Italian”, despite the fact that lately, I have been pleasantly surprised by places I’ve come across.

Spagettini isn’t at all how I imagined in my mind. In fact, my preconceived notions of the restaurant was not at all accurate. Because the restaurant is a hub for jazz musicians — think Dave Koz and the like — there is a lounge area specifically mapped out for this.

My friend and I are led to a booth while we wait for another to arrive. Our incredibly awesome server, Jill, was to be with us for our meal this evening.

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We began with some cocktails — Blood Orange Manhattan ($14) for the guy, and Water Cooler ($13) for me. Our friend chose wine when she arrived. His Angel’s Envy Bourbon, Domaine de Canton, lemon juice, lemongrass and ginger syrup and tarragon drink is pleasant. However, my Bombay Sapphire Gin, St Germain, watermelon and lime juice, vanilla and mint syrup concoction is absolutely delicious, I have another.

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While we were waiting, some amuse bouche were presented to us while we perused the menu.

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We decided upon Heirloom Tomato Bruschetta ($14/$16 with goat cheese) served with grilled baguette. I liked how they serve the goat cheese on the side instead of slathering it on to the toast. Our server tells me that they do that in case someone is not fond of goat cheese. That’s a brilliant idea because there are times I’m not into a certain goat cheese that’s served.

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Pommery Shrimp ($24) may not look like anything much, but it is absolutely mouthwatering. The sauteed shrimp are plump and has a wonderful snap, however, it is the Pommery mustard cream sauce with white wine and shallots that steals the day. It is so rich and flavorful we were not going to let a drop go to waste. Bits of bread were broken off to wipe the plate clean.

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We thought it might be smart to break up the meal with something green, so Wedge ($15) salad it is. Honestly, this defeats the purpose of a salad, but I can’t think of a more delicious way to eat lettuce when it is smothered in applewood smoked bacon, blue cheese crumbles, bits of Roma tomatoes and red onions.

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However, it is the house-made pasta that catches my eye. Yellow Corn Agnolotti ($22) are pockets filled with a corn (which is currently in season) puree, tossed in a mascarpone sauce and topped with parmigiano reggiano. The salty sweet flavors are addicting and the perfectly al dente pasta is absolutely delicious.

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Another great choice is Seafood Conchiglie ($29) with lobster, shrimp and Dungeness crab. The cream sauce sits snugly in between the pasta shells and creates a luscious mouthfeel on the palate.

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We shared some entrees between us. First up, Beeler’s Pork Chop ($29), a hefty cider-brined chop with Yukon Gold potato puree and sweet apples. The combination of the three created a nice contrast of flavors, but unfortunately, the pork was a bit overcooked.

My favorite was New Zealand Lamb Rack ($44), a stunning rack of meat prepared perfectly medium rare with a rich, savory port reduction, served with a side of baby spinach and shallot & parmesan potato gratin.

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Come for the food, come for the jazz. If you happen to get Jill as your server, you’ll know your experience is going to be a very enjoyable one.

Spaghettini
3005 Old Ranch Pkwy
Seal Beach, CA 90740
Tel: 562-596-2199

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tasty homemade cuisine at Solare — San Diego

I’m usually disappointed by so many Italian restaurants serving mediocre cuisine, however after my meal at Solare, I can safely say, this place has won me over, with a stellar menu and a very passionate Italian chef to boot.

I arrive for a late lunch with a friend I haven’t seen in quite some time. He tells me he is friends with the head bartender here and is excited to try the food after hearing a lot about it. I find out that the restaurant has been around for quite some time, however, the current owner took over about a year and a half ago and hired Chef Accursio Lota, formerly at The Marine Room in La Jolla to head up the kitchen.

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Chef Accursio stops by our table and I have many questions for him, including the “guitar” spaghetti. He proudly steps away and brings back the chitarra pasta maker to show me. He tells me he makes everything in-house, including all the pastas on the menu from scratch. I am well aware that this is a huge selling point for any Italian restaurant, and one that piques my interest. I am excited to try some of these.

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A basket of house-made foccacia is brought to the table for us to munch on while we peruse the menu.

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I order the Carpaccio di Wagyu ($14) mainly because I was intrigued by the balsamico pearls on the menu description. Paper thin slices of Wagyu beef sirloin is topped with arugula and dotted with beautifully colored edible borrage flowers. 20-month parmagiano reggiano shavings sit atop the tender beef sprinkled with rosemary salt. A handful of intensely flavored balsamico pearls are strewn around the plate. I have eaten a good many carpaccios in my life time, and I can honestly say, this is one of the best. The flavor profiles are all there giving a uniform mouthful of salty, tart, and a hint of sweetness.

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Polpette al Forno ($5 happy hour 3pcs/$11 6pcs) is one of those things I generally gauge Italian restaurants by. Every chef has his or her own recipe and it is usually passed down from generations ago. These home-made Sicilian beef and veal meatballs did not disappoint. They are tender, well-seasoned and paired exquisitely with the stunning marinara sauce. Bravo!

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Speck & Creme Fraiche Pizza ($15) is next and it is a Napoli style pizza — thin crust — though not cooked in a 900 degree wood fired oven. The smoked speck, creme fraiche, provolone, poached onion and wild thyme blend well together and fresh parmigiana reggiano is grated at the table.

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Because the pasta is made in house, I wanted to try two styles, the first being Agnolotti all’Ortica e Piselli ($19). Agnolotti is a stuffed pasta, and here, these hand-made goodies are filled with nettles. The sauce is light and the stracciatella of burrata adds richness to the dish. I love the English peas adding a slightly sweet freshness to the plate. My only complaint would be that the menu description of crispy prosciutto crudo were not crispy.

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Whether you’re vegetarian or not, Timballo di Melanzane ($17) is sure to please. I love eggplant, and I mean LOVE it. My mother used to be amazed at my ability, as a child, to eat plain steamed eggplants with no seasonings on it. Of course this beautifully presented eggplant timbale is seasoned perfectly and topped with a slice of tomato and fresh mozzarella. A sprinkling of parmagiano reggiano completes this dish.

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But of course, what I have been waiting for is next — Spaghetti all’Aragosta ($21), the “guitar” spaghetti made in-house on the chitarra pasta maker Chef Accursio brought out earlier. The spaghetti is incredible. Its texture is so toothsome and nothing I have ever had before in southern California. The sauteed Maine lobster are tossed with date tomatoes, spring onion and lemon zest. This spaghetti can be prepared with any sauce and the dish would be outstanding.

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We were so pleased with our meal at Solare. This is definitely noteworthy Italian cuisine and Chef Accursio Lota definitely has some major skills. The freshness and simplicity in everything we tasted is exactly what I look for when I’m eating Italian.

Solare
2820 Roosevelt Rd
San Diego, CA 92106
Tel: 619-270-9670

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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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