2182 Avenida de la Playa, La Jolla
The Lynnester was saying, "I used to go to Piatti all the time with my friend Marsha, but she moved, and now I never get there. I really miss their lemon ravioli." "Hey, I'll be glad to go with you!" I piped up. "I've always been curious, and if you say it's good, it must be." A few weeks later, we were there.
"I thought you didn't do chains," Samurai Jim kidded me. "This is a chain?" I asked. Lynne owned that it was, with maybe three or four locations. It turns out to be larger still, with a dozen restaurants all over the state and in Texas and Oregon -- but the original was in Marin County, and the first few additions were in Northern California wine country, so the "Bay Area foodie" ethos was built in (and I'm happy to say, it remains). Chefs at each restaurant have the freedom to buy local produce and create dishes to please the locals. When we looked at our menus, the first thing that leaped out from the appetizer list was animelle -- sweetbreads. Another attention-grabber was a "salad" of warm grilled romaine wrapped in prosciutto. "Wow, these are pretty sophisticated dishes," I said. "If it's a chain, 'tis a far, far better chain than Macaroni Grill or Buca di Beppo -- and Olive Garden, it sure ain't."
The restaurant is on a cute, cozy street in the La Jolla Shores neighborhood, and you enter past a cozy, darkish bar. The dining room is airy and bright, with glazed terra cotta tile flooring and a soundproofed white ceiling (which doesn't help much against the yackety-yak that the hard floor magnifies). A lovely, heated garden patio is tucked away to the side, and blessed are they who get to eat there.
We began with carpaccio, which Lynne recalled fondly. Her memory proved accurate: It was well above the norm in tenderness, quality, and the gentle, fresh flavor of the thin-sliced raw beef tenderloin, with a perfectly balanced citrus-and-oil dressing. "The thing I love about Piatti is, it's so consistent from one time to the next," Lynne said. "If something's good, it's always good."
Even better were two sophisticated starters. Our table's favorite dish that evening had two hearts of romaine lettuce grilled in wide girdles of fine prosciutto and lightly dressed in a devastating hazelnut-oil vinaigrette. (With a deep inhale, you could smell the nuts the oil was pressed from.) The firm-tender lettuce had a pleasing faint bitterness, and the cured ham surrounding it was rich and piggy. The chef came up with this dish as a modification on the more classic combination of grilled radicchio with pancetta; we preferred this version. "Everybody loves romaine," I observed. "Radicchio is more challenging." Eating it side by side with the sweetbread appetizer was a lucky match of complementary flavors. The sweetbreads were juicy little bites, semicrisp outside with melting centers, sautéed with cremini mushrooms to mirror their earthiness without imposing the burden of a heavy sauce. Ahh, bella Italia! They know how to eat there!
We continued with a shared midcourse of the Lynnester's fave, ravioli al limone -- housemade squares (about 2 1/2 inches to a side) with thin, tender pasta skins bulging with ricotta and a touch of basil, all bathed in a seductive lemon-cream sauce equipoised between tartness and suavity. Underneath, a surprise gift: The pouches were plated over thin lemon slices and barely wilted arugula. My sole quibble was that the ricotta, a tad granular, was not as creamy as the very best brands.
Given how enchanting this single pasta was -- and the wealth of pasta dishes on this menu -- you should know some of the other choices I'd have loved to try, given enough nights to do so. I was sorely tempted by cavatappi with house-made Italian sausage, mushrooms, spinach, and roasted tomato sauce, and by the evening's special of pasta carbonara with green peas. Then there are mint-touched penne with red wine--braised lamb, rotolo filled with wild mushrooms in porcini sauce, and saffron pappardelle with shrimp. If only Piatti was my neighborhood restaurant! I'd be eating there once a week to try every pasta, as so many local customers seem to do.
The brief gap between pastas and entrées afforded us a chance to eyeball our fellow diners and their choices. On a Friday night, even as late as 8:00 p.m., many were families, some running to three and four generations, with kids ranging from infants through middle school. We lucked out since the kids were all right that night (don't take this as a guarantee), well-behaved junior gourmets-in-training, with "restaurant manners" well in hand. The babies didn't shriek, nor did the toddlers throw food or tantrums. (In that way, too, Piatti is no Olive Garden.) Several families had chosen pizza as their midcourse. The pizza margherita (with fresh tomatoes and mozzarella, named for a dead queen of Italy) was garnished with plentiful chopped Italian parsley to create the red-white-green color scheme of Italy's flag and deepen the flavors of the topping. The pizza crusts were rolled very thin in the authentic Italian style.
Protein entrées are few and all Northern Italian with a Tuscan bent: Three out of four on the regular menu (roast chicken, chicken breast, and veal piccata) involve lemon juice. "I hear the roast chicken is good," said Lynne -- but we had already committed to the veal, which also had lemon juice. When the waitress took our orders, she mentioned the sides that come with each dish with a question mark in her voice -- hinting that you can substitute other sides from the menu. In fact, Lynne has often done so in the past. The veal piccata comes with triangular cakes of dark, sticky, fried risotto, which we tried this time but wouldn't go for again. Lynne usually substitutes the lemon ravioli, their sauce sleekly mirroring the sharper lemon juice of the piccata's caper sauce. Whatever it comes with, the veal is a fine rendition, tender meat in a clean, tart sauce -- a dish that's always lively if the kitchen is as competent as it is here.