Stuck in arid West Texas, Janie suffers a constant craving for first-rate fresh seafood. "I only come to San Diego for the fish," she kidded. Her entrée pick was Scampi alla Diavolo, prawns flamed in cognac, served over linguine with a spicy marinara sauce -- which was indeed "devilish" in its fire. "Oh, this is just what I've been needing," she said. Penne Regate Meditteraneo, on the other hand, sounded better than it tasted. The chewy pasta was garnished with baby artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, and rock shrimp in a thin herbal sauce of olive oil and wine. We all felt that the accompaniments were overwhelmed by the earthy penne, which are better served by (and with) strong-flavored, clingy sauces -- including those cook-all-day mamma mia productions.
At the next dinner (sans Texans), when the waiter announced that the soup du jour was lobster bisque and that one of the specials was lobster ravioli, I happily realized that the latter had to be house-made from the day's crustacean invasion. We'd be spared the thickly rolled, thinly filled pastas that lesser restaurants buy frozen from the S.D. Ravioli and Rubber Tire Company (or whatever it's called). Indeed, our large, round raviolis offered reasonably thin pasta, swollen with a forcemeat of lobster dotted with minced chile pepper. The rounds are bathed in a concentrated saffron-cream sauce, with crimson saffron threads visible in the cream. A garnish of seared sea scallop slices went beyond lagniappe. The flavor of this well-calculated palate cleanser was as intense as the main elements of the dish. I'd venture to say that when these ravioli aren't available, the filled pastas from the regular menu would also be house-made, hence worth ordering.
One reason for our second visit was that I wanted to taste the Osso Buco Milanese, a specialty of the house. "That's awful heavy for this time of year," said my partner, but I overrode him and was glad of it. Yes, it's a huge chunk of veal attached to a Flintstone-size marrowbone, but the meat is dressed with a vernal ragout of chopped carrots, celery, chard greens, and fresh tomatoes. A well-made risotto soaks in the juices. (Pasta is also an option.) We were especially lucky, because that evening's veggies included the bittersweet combination of Belgian endive leaves and Florence fennel (anise) stems. Either would go well with the meat, but together they're ideal.
The espresso, even the decaf, is mellow and rich. The house-made desserts consist of crème brûlée, tiramisu, and gelati, including a refreshing white spumoni with chunks of pistachios, dark chocolate bits, and maraschino cherries. The ethereal tiramisu shows proper restraint and includes the correct ingredients, with ladyfinger layers soaked in brewed coffee and dark cocoa powder. The crème brûlée is honest, too, made with real vanilla and more cream than egg, its texture hinting of an aerating whip before the mixture was baked. The heavy pastries, however, are outsourced and not worth their calories.
"What do you think of this place?" Janie asked as we concluded our dinner. I started spouting about it being well above average for San Diego... "Well, for us," said Paul, "This is at least 100 times better than any Italian restaurant in El Paso."
ABOUT THE CHEF
Very little has changed at Primavera in the 16-odd years since owners Jeanette and Chris Stavros opened the restaurant. The decor has been freshened from time to time, but the same chef -- Jose ("Pepe") de la Vega -- has long presided over the kitchen, with a menu that's nearly set in stone. "We have a lot of regular customers who want to keep the menu the way it is," a waiter told us. "Probably 80 percent of the menu is the same as it was when we opened. Our customers want their favorites to always be there for them. So we have specials every night, for people who want a little change."
Chef Vega was born in Mexico. He loved hanging around the family kitchen, where his mother taught him to cook. "I loved to make different ideas for food, special things." He came to the US as a teenager 25 years ago and found work in restaurant kitchens. "I learned at an Italian restaurant on La Jolla Boulevard -- it's not there anymore -- with a friend who'd studied cooking in Italy," he says. "So when I came here [to Primavera], I already knew how to cook this cuisine."
Among the pleasures of working at Primavera, he said, is that he's free to buy fine ingredients, including fresh (never frozen) seafood, genuine prosciutto di Parma (not the domestic version), and seasonal vegetables. "I call the seafood company every day to see what I can do for a special. And I like to make different vegetables every day. Everything here is always fresh."