7100 Four Seasons Point, Carlsbad
When a respected, deluxe Italian kitchen that's previously featured only chefs FOB from Italy hires a Montana-born, Manhattan-seasoned top toque, it's time to taste again. Vivace's new chef, Bruce Logue, is a protégé of New York superstar chef Mario (Babbo) Batalli. Batalli is known for his authentic rustic Italian cooking -- using every part of any animal that comes into his kitchen (including amateur apprentice chefs, if Bill Buford's best seller Heat is to be believed) -- and his subtle innovations to the traditions.
Our friends Tom and Alma, themselves Italian-American, live near the restaurant, which is in the hotel at Carlsbad's Four Season's Aviara Resort, and we asked them to join us. Their son Rob and daughter-in-law Jennifer had just returned from a long stint in Italy -- teaching, wandering, and enjoying zesty food wherever they roamed. They were mainly in Genoa, where even a workman's lunch is a feast. (Basil! Garlic! Fresh-caught seafood! Carrots two feet long, as sweet as candy!) We invited them, too, hoping to probe their experiences in current Italian cuisine.
You reach Vivace by a short walk through the hotel's first floor. The dining room is fancy but intimate; one area has a fireplace, although, this being high summer, that hardly registered. Outside a heated balcony patio offers a view of the grounds, a quiet alternative for dining in good weather.
We began with a tuna crudo. Crudo, the Venetian version of sashimi, is a great fad in New York -- thanks in large part to chef David Pasternak, who started the craze at Battalli's seafood restaurant, Esca. So far, crudo is largely unknown here. If you look for it at the Little Italy restaurant named for it, you'll get regular Japanese/fusion sushi and sashimi, but I've heard that Stingaree may be putting a more authentic version on the menu. "Crudo is the freshest fish right off the boat, cut with the freshest, best, most flavorful olive oil, lemon juice, and sea salt," says chef Bruce. "It's gone a little further than that, of course, and some chefs are doing crazy things with it." Vivace's rendition is a standard-setter: An unmolded mini-tower of shredded tuna tartare, held together with red onion-marjoram "aioli" (minus any tastable garlic, so it should really be called "house-made mayo"), was topped with a slick of avocado mousse and surrounded by chilled cucumber broth. It was ethereal enough you could bribe Saint Peter with a portion to win your cloud in heaven.
A salumi plate is another New York/San Francisco food fashion you'll find at Vivace and rarely elsewhere in this area. (Region, which will close in late October, will feature house-made salumi the week of October 3.) Here, it arrived as a long dish showcasing thin slices of artisanal cured meats, topped by a chorus line of marinated mushrooms and a puff of frisée salad. Most of the meats were unfamiliar, and even our intelligent waitress couldn't remember all their names, beyond sopressata. These were made by two specialists -- Batalli's father Armandino, up in Seattle, and Paul Bertolli (formerly of Chez Panisse) in the Bay Area. I've been wondering about salumi for a long time -- but the carnivore's collection here left me wondering about how people in Italy would eat it -- straight up like this, or with just a few slices as part of an antipasti platter? The flavors and textures were zesty and interesting, but I wanted more contrasting ingredients (e.g., pickled or stuffed vegetables) to lend relief from the intensity of the meat pile (although the chef tells me that he includes more varied garnishes than Mario ever would).
While eating at Vivace several years ago, I enjoyed my first memorable taste of burrata ("buttery"), a special mozzarella with a seductively creamy center. At that meal, it was served at room temperature. This time, we apparently ordered it at a moment of experimentation, between the previous week's heated version, in a warm tomato broth, and the next week's room-temperature rendition, served as a Caprese with local heirloom tomatoes. Our cheese arrived slightly warmed in a small white bowl, surrounded on the plate by garnishes of imported prosciutto di Parma, Mission figs, and locally grown macadamia nuts. But the moment it was cut open, the cheese cooled, soon solidifying into dairy-flavored chewing gum in a pool of whey. Instead of sharing it around, I guess I should have put a napkin over my head, like a Frenchman embarrassed at eating ortolans (little songbirds), and hoovered it down.
All pastas and risotti can be ordered in appetizer-size portions, lending an opportunity to enjoy more of the restaurant's best dishes. The house makes its own soft pastas -- orecchiette, pappardelle, and stuffed skins, such as ravioli. The dough is laboriously mixed and rolled by hand, not by an industrial machine. Our spectacular agnolotti, with skins as thin as tissue paper, were plumped with fluffy sheep's-milk ricotta. They were garnished with young fava beans, shreds of prosciutto, and a "sauce" of melted imported butter thinned with light cream. Equally triumphant was a risotto made from Carnaroli rice (the ultimate risotto rice) cooked in lobster stock, with a firm-creamy texture. The dish included perfectly cooked Maine lobster tail and leaves of Thai basil, sharper and cleaner than the European basils.
"Black spaghetti" (colored with squid ink) with rock shrimp and Calabrese sausage is a close approximation of a dish at Babbo. It proved controversial at our table, since the hearty noodles were cooked firm. "Are you happy?" Tom asked Alma. "They made it just right for you -- al dente." "Well, I'd rather have it raw, but if they have to cook it, this is perfect," she admitted (or jested, I wasn't sure which). For my partner and me, the black strands gleaming with oil were closer to "al Dante," as in Inferno. They looked sinister and required powerful chewing. The shrimp were sweet and mild, the sausage bits so scant and gentle that they were lost among the ebony ropes. But our friends wiped the bowl clean.