Our best entrée was the fish du jour -- sea bass with tomatoes, shallots, capers, thyme, and white wine. The fish was cooked just right, moist and tender, without our having said a word about doneness. The accompanying vegetable mixture made a light, fresh sauce, with new potatoes as the anchoring starch.
The most expensive main course was the least rewarding. Bistecca, a grilled rib-eye steak, just wasn't very interesting. Although it's Prime grade from one of our best meat vendors, the beef was on the tough side, and despite the sassy herbed-butter topping, it had less flavor than expected. "Turf Club's is better," said Jim. "Yeah, Turf's garlic marinade is some kind of magic," Lynne said, "and their beef is tastier, too." However, after a couple of days in the fridge, the cold beef leftovers from Piatti developed more depth of flavor, making a great sandwich. Mysterious. The garlic mashed potatoes served alongside at the restaurant were boring, with the grainy texture that comes of skimping on dairy products. (I'll substitute the mushroom rotolo next time.)
Piatti does an expert job of accommodating diners who eat "family-style." When we told our waitress, Amanda, that we'd be sharing all the food, she thanked us with apparent sincerity and arranged to accommodate us. For each course, we received small individual plates to spoon out portions from the larger plates in the center. Happily, our small-looking table proved plenty roomy enough to fit all the dishware, even with three large entrée platters. Amanda also immediately grasped that three sharers of a steak would need not one but three steak knives. Even the busser was good: Once he understood that we were doggy-bagging a bit of everything (to be torn apart, examined, and retasted under bright kitchen fluorescents -- though he didn't know that), we didn't have to keep asking.
The dessert list could perhaps be more interesting. A lotta gelati. A flan-variant. A (yawn) tiramisu. I wish that non-Italian restaurants had never discovered tiramisu (it takes about ten minutes to assemble, which may be why it's become ubiquitous) and ruined it in so many fiendishly clever ways -- because now I'm too wary of the miscarriages to order it. I'm sure Piatti's is better than most. We did find a couple of contenders: A torta di limetta is a tart topped with key-lime custard studded with fresh raspberries, over a thin bottom crust, set over a pool of raspberry sauce. The custard is a perfect balance between lightness and richness, tart and sweet, with a velvety texture. Even chocoholic Jim (when he isn't a samurai he's a chocoholic) preferred it to the rather stodgy chocolate bread pudding. The espresso was decent, and Amanda brought it right along with the desserts, as requested.
Piatti proves that a restaurant doesn't have to sell its soul if it multiplies. In La Jolla, the food is soaringly superior to a majority of the local standalone Italian eateries -- it cleaves to the spirit of real Italian cuisine (from Italy, that is, not Hoboken), a country where farm folk pick vegetables twice a day and townspeople shop at produce stands for lunch, and again for dinner, to get the freshest veggies. Piatti's menu embodies those unimpeachable culinary virtues -- freshness, simplicity, and local seasonality. It's even better to learn from a Piatti veteran like Lynne that the quality of each dish doesn't vary with the chef's mood, the size of the crowd, or the phase of the moon. Here, if you love something, it will always be there for you, just the way you enjoyed it last time.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Chef Pepe Ccapatinta has been with the La Jolla Piatti since its opening nearly 18 years ago, when he transferred south from the Sonoma location. The odd spelling of his name is not a typo: He's from Cuzco, Peru, high in the Andes. (Maybe the extra c stemmed from somebody gasping for breath at 13,000 feet while spelling the name.) "I was cooking since I was a child," he says. "I came from a large family -- nine brothers, so with my parents and grandma we were 12 people in the household. Every time we cooked, we were cooking for an army.
"I graduated from college in Peru with a degree in hotel management, tourism, and beverages. I came to the States 21 years ago, looking for a career in my field, and I ended up getting a job in a kitchen. From there I went on to work in various restaurants in the Bay Area, Napa Valley, Sonoma. I was cooking French and Italian food, and I had the chance to go to Italy three times. I picked up what real Italian people eat. I went through the countryside, going to little trattorias to learn what the local people eat. The areas I've explored most are Florence, Parma, and for the seafood, Liguria. This summer I'm going back and taking my wife there for a month.
"I opened the Piatti in Sonoma, worked some years with them, and then came here and opened the La Jolla branch. I've been here ever since. Each store [of Piatti] has their own chef and menu. They try to cater to their area. You'll find, tops, two or three dishes carried from one area of Piatti to another. For instance, we have animelle, sweetbreads; not all Piattis do. It is not a top seller, but people who love them order them, because they know they can't find them at many other restaurants here."
I asked how he managed to keep the food so consistent. Part of the answer is that most of his staff have been with him for years. He also trains them to maintain standards, regardless of how busy the restaurant is. As for substituting side dishes, it can be difficult on busy nights, but they take such requests anyway. "We're here to please the customers, so we do it," he says.
Why is the menu heavier on pasta than entrées? The answer is economics -- plus, pleasing local diners. Pastas, at moderate prices, sell very well, especially since kids at this family-oriented restaurant love them. It also benefits the restaurant's bottom line. "We make more money on the pastas. Your food costs are much less. On a steak my food cost is 40 percent, and on a pasta my food cost is 15 or 20 percent. And I hate to gouge people. We can charge less for the pastas. I don't want people to come here and feel, 'Oh, it's La Jolla, they can charge whatever they can get.'