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Lobster ravioli is a class act all the way, with housemade pasta (not the typical purchased pockets of most local restaurants) accompanied by precious seasonal asparagus. The pasta is the deep coral of tomatoes (or lobster shells, the more likely coloring agent), cooked al dente but not chewy. The pockets are well filled with lobster meat mixed with cream — you can actually taste the lobster for a change! — aswim in a light coral cream sauce with a distinct shellfish undertone (that rich lobster broth again), topped with a sprinkling of cooked fresh herbs. Maybe it’s not actually better than sex, but I’d have to try both within an hour and compare them to decide.

Vitello alla Romana is a layered version of the classic saltimbocca alla Romana (veal scallops with prosciutto, sage, and cheese). I actually find Antica’s rendition (similar to a memorable version from my favorite place on Mulberry and Grand in Manhattan) superior to saltimbocca. The latter has small pieces of the ingredients wrapped together and can be overly salty and dry if the balance isn’t perfect. Here, instead, the veal scallops are laid flat and topped by the prosciutto and swoony melted fontina in a winey sauce. The veal is white but doesn’t taste like baby formula. And it’s only one element of a harmonic trio of ingredients singing lead, with the sauce as the backup chorus. It comes with creamy mashed potatoes and long slices of zucchini and carrots, cooked semi-crisp. The same vegetables came with the evening’s special entrée of local sea bass, correctly cooked tender (not dry) and brightly sauced with tomatoes, capers, and white wine.

I’d have loved to try one of the dishes with Italian sausages — the Health Department won’t let the restaurant make its own, but the chef buys from the best local source, Pete’s Meats.

We were way too full for dessert — but since Lynne’s a regular by now, we all received espresso cups of — can I go Chaucerian on you for just a coupla secs, please, please? — “swich licor of which vertu engendred is the flor” — that is, such sweet liquid (flavors of licorice, vanilla, mocha) that made us happy (if no more virtuous or flowery than usual). Don’t know what it was, but sipping it was a privilege. Maybe it was some sort of enchantment potion — let’s just call it “bella Italia.” If so, I’m glad to fall under its spell.

Note: The chef and his wife are going to Italy for two and a half weeks on March 19. So if you don’t want to trust the kitchen — you probably can, you know — go there before or after. In any event, please reserve, or you’ll be waiting out in the rain for an hour! (And even if it’s not raining, it’s still an hour.)

ABOUT THE CHEF

Francisco Basile comes from a small town near Palermo, Sicily. His voice is deep and warm, with a heavy accent, his manner is charming and witty, and his shape betrays a certain enjoyment of good food — not a bad thing in a chef. I asked how he started in the cooking business. “I went to a culinary school in Palermo,” he said, “but they just teach you the basics. Then it’s up to you, you start determining your own future. You learn from chefs, and then there’s the creativity. Because I love what I do. I cook from my heart. I love the flavors.

“I worked seasonally — in summers I worked in the beach areas, and in winter I worked in the ski resorts up north. And when I was 23 years old, I came to the States. My first stop was Huntington Beach, California. I worked in a place called Mangia, Mangia, where the owner was from my home town. It was a mamma ’n’ papa style of cooking, like spaghetti and meatballs. But I don’t want to bad-mouth them because I got my green card [immigration visa] from them. I worked a couple of other places in Orange County — more spaghetti and meatballs.

“And then I came to San Diego. Panevino offered me a job there. [Note: That was at Osteria Panevino’s height, when it gained a reputation for excellence.] Then my cousin in Bonita offered me a job at Buon Giorno, and finally I opened my place here seven years ago — they’ve been seven beautiful years. Yes, I’m a happy man, I have a beautiful wife, Marta, who runs the front of the house at the restaurant. I have a beautiful little daughter. And now I have Naomi Wise interviewing me.” (Didn’t I say he was a charmer? Don’t worry, the review was already written.)

I asked him about the philosophy behind his cooking and his restaurant. “I believe in simplicity,” he said. “With just garlic, good tomatoes, good oil, you can cook wonderful food. As long as we have good ingredients, we can do anything — but simplicity is my motto. And when the people come to my house, my restaurant, I want them to feel like they’re coming home. I want them to feel like friends and not just customers. So long as they respect me and they respect my employees, they get all the respect from us. We treat everybody equally, whether they come for a salad with a glass of wine or a filet mignon and a bottle of Brunello. It’s all the same for me. I want people to feel welcome when they come to my house.”

Trattoria Antica

**** (Excellent)

5654 Lake Murray Boulevard, La Mesa, 619-463-9919, anticatrattoria.com.

HOURS: Lunch Tuesday–Friday, 11:30 a.m.–2:00 p.m.; dinner nightly, 4:30–9:30 p.m., until 10:00 p.m. Saturday–Sunday.

PRICES: Appetizers, $8–$13; soups and salads, $6–$8; pasta and risotti, $12–$18; vegetable sides, $6; entrées, $16–$28 (for Choice-grade filet mignon or New Zealand rack of lamb; most dishes under $21). Lunch slightly lower.

CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Indulgent multi-regional Italian cuisine made from scratch with fine ingredients. Solid Italian-Californian wine list of about 50 bottles at reasonable markups, ten choices by the glass.

PICK HITS: Take your pick, but consider frittura mixta, bocconcini with prosciutto, crab-stuffed portobello (frequent special), lobster ravioli, penne Mazzini, vitello alla Romana.

NEED TO KNOW: Reserve for dinner, especially on weekends, or you’ll be sorry. Patio seating in good weather. Sound level lively, not painful. Five lacto-vegetarian pastas and risotti including one vegan, one vegan-adaptable.

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Comments

calpoet March 18, 2008 @ 12:07 p.m.

Wow, this looks like a find Naomi...I'll be heading to La Mesa shortly....

Fred M

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Sheryl April 9, 2008 @ 11:40 a.m.

Hmmm... sounds like I will need to google "La Mesa" and figure out where this mysterious land is... can't say I have ever been there -- but this restaurant sounds like a must try!

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AvantGal03 May 20, 2008 @ 3:52 p.m.

I LOVE THIS PLACE!!! What an amazing concept! Downtown level restaurant in quiet La Mesa! The owner is super cool too. Not only is he an amazing chef, but you can have a nice chat with him too.

I live very close to this place and it's wonderful to get out of the house with the hubby and not have to deal with the downtown traffic, prices, and hit or miss establishments. This is a sure thing!

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