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We split a stand-alone pasta course of fascinating Penne Speperina, dressed with spicy Italian sausage meat, mascarpone, and mint, a controversial dish in previous reviews and blogs. The answer may be that it’s best in small portions — split among a quartet of eaters (an octet would be better yet). The mint is subtle and might be hard to identify if you didn’t already know its identity, but you definitely taste it. The sausage meat is interesting, but don’t hope for the familiar Little Italy fennel flavor — Patrizia doesn’t like it, and carefully chose a less-seasoned brand. The impact comes from unctuous mascarpone swathing thick, chewy pasta. Three forkfuls for excitement, four to fulfillment, five to satiation, and any more may mean exhaustion, unless you’re a mighty trencherman indeed.

Our entrées included another pasta and a pizza, plus two protein-based secondi that proved better than either. A special of Porcini Ravioli in Bolognese Ragout appealed to ragout-loving Lynne and my own mushroom passion. Lynne liked the coarse-ground meat-and-tomato sauce (which left me in neutral gear), but the ravioli contained only cheese, minus discernible mushrooms. Patrizia later told me that the ravioli are shipped frozen from Italy, and the company sent cheese instead of porcini ravioli that day — the waiter was supposed to warn us. The regular menu’s Porcini Ravioli with Sage Butter is one of Patrizia’s favorites and no doubt much better.

I was slightly disappointed with the pizza, expecting an ultra-thin, Roman-style crust like those at Via Italia in Encinitas. This crust was more New York–style — thicker and softer — but with Rome’s minimalist toppings. The signature Pizza Opera had drifts of raw arugula and sheets of sweet-tender Parma prosciutto dancing around loose: the layer of mascarpone cheese was too thin to anchor them to the crust. Plus, guiltily, I missed the rich Neapolitan goops of mozzarella and tomato sauce that define the American conception of the dish. (Like the joke about a certain Texan president — “all hat, no cattle” — this dish struck us as “all crust, no pizza.”) Next time, I’d try the Margherita, with tomato sauce, basil, and mozzarella; or the Vegetariana, with fresh tomato, mozzarella, and seasonal grilled veggies.

But our entrées from the secondi list more than compensated. I usually hate chicken breast (boring! dry!), but the menu offered an enticing version in Pollo Reale (“royal chicken”), a traditional Florentine dish topped with sweet gorgonzola and porcini. The mushrooms — frozen porcini imported from Italy — were meltingly tender, and the gorgonzola, upon heating, relaxed into an opulent sauce. The chicken was nearly as tender as the mushrooms. The plate included a little cone of risotto and a few firm-tender asparagus spears. Royal, indeed.

Ossobuchini Milanese are “baby veal shanks,” per the menu. “Isn’t that redundant?” asked logical Ben. Turned out not: the meat was ultra-tender, its dainty small shank-bones filled with soft, sweet marrow. We’re just past Easter, when traditionally people of the Northern Hemisphere cook up the seasonal new “crop” of young rams and billies (before they can mature into stinky teenage sex-fiends). I know less about cattle seasons, but maybe this is the calf equivalent of “spring lamb.” The delicate rosemary-scented tomato sauce was lovely, the saffron risotto an ideal plate-mate.

For dessert, the regular Torta di Ricotta (Italian cheesecake with pine nuts and raisins) wasn’t available that night, but there was a simpler version without the nuts and fruits. It was tall, airy, and barely sweet, its insubstantial waft of crust made of bread crumbs with the barest touch of sugar — a real Italian grandma’s cheesecake, sincere and authentic. If our posse were Italian, we’d have been teary-eyed with nostalgia for our cara nonna back home in Firenze.

Torta del Nonno (“grandpa’s cake”) proved to be a shortbread cake suffused with bittersweet chocolate, topped with pine nuts. As a fan of torta della nonna (“grandma’s cake,” a coarse-textured cornmeal-and-nut tort), it surprised me — I didn’t realize that granddad’s tastes were so different from granny’s. Chocolate-loving Mark was thrilled, and the rest of us liked it plenty, though we were more excited by that plain-as-dirt cheesecake.

Needless to say, the espresso was above suspicion. Is this not a genuine Italian restaurant? Well, yes, that’s precisely what I like about it. Even in the menu’s pan-regional “pick hits” of dishes from other regions (e.g., osso bucco is from Milan, well north of Florence, ragout is Bolognese, and fettucine with pesto is Genovese), you’re not getting standard American-Italian restaurant versions but personal interpretations different enough from the norm to make them fresh again. The ghost of Roberto’s grandma is still standing over the chefs’ shoulders, and we can taste the living spirit of Florentine home-cooking.

Operacaffe
***
(Very Good)
835 Fourth Avenue (across from Horton Plaza garage entrance), 619-234-6538, operacaffe.com
HOURS: Monday–Thursday 11:00 a.m.–10:00 p.m., Friday–Saturday till 11:00 p.m.; Sunday 3:00–10:00 p.m.
PRICES: Appetizers $8–$15; Salads $6–$12; Pizzas $11–$13; Pastas $10–$14; Entrées $16–$25; Desserts $6. Nightly specials slightly higher.
CUISINE & BEVERAGES: Tuscan cuisine, with unique Florentine dishes, daily specials with seasonal choices. Italian and California wines, mostly affordable, plenty by the glass.
PICK HITS: I Coccoli (fried pizza-dough puffs); La Tartara (beef tartare); Insalata Patrizia; Caciucco Seafood Soup (special); Pollo Reale (chicken with gorgonzola, porcini); Ossobuchini Milanese; cheesecake. Other good bets: La Piramide (polenta-gorgonzola-porcini appetizer), Operacaffe and di Mare salads, porcini ravioli, seafood pastas.
NEED TO KNOW: Horton Plaza now has “self-validating” machines for two hours’ free parking (no purchase required). Moderately noisy when crowded. Numerous lacto-vegetarian dishes; a few vegan pastas, plus adaptable salads.

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