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None of us fell in love with our main courses. Pollo Toscano was described on the menu as “chicken grilled, marinated in olive oil, garlic, crushed red pepper, and rosemary.” This evoked a happy vision of a zesty bone-in, skin-on roast chicken half (perhaps like Tuscany’s chicken cooked under a brick). Instead, an existential crisis of very white, sliced, skinless breast fillet arrived: nothingness, disappointment, sorrow.

Guazetto di Pesce sounded Sicilian and enticing: clams, mussels, calamari, and fresh fish with garlic, olives, and capers in a light tomato broth. When it arrived, we found octopus in there, too! But the mussels and clams alone survived the cooking. All other species were overcooked to rubber.

It’s worth noting in the restaurant’s defense that neither owner was present the week I ate there. Frank (aka Francesco) was in Italy for the funeral of a close relative, stuck due to snowed-in airports on the East Coast. I exploited a friend’s friendship with his mother and learned that he’s devoted to Antica (his very own restaurant) and spends little time at Origano. “Vinnie” was also stuck in Italy. Yeah, great, just in time for me to review the restaurant. From the problems with done-ness, etc., it sounds as if somebody needs to be minding the store, at least with the current cooking staff. Several friends who ate here a week or so earlier found the cooking better than what we experienced at our meal.

For dessert we shared an ethereal, unconventional tiramisu. It doesn’t have the bittersweet notes of thin-shaved bittersweet chocolate or instant espresso granules on top, nor a perceptible boozy underlay of rum (or other spirits) that the classic version offers — but it’s like eating a little white cloud. Could so much air possibly have any calories? I’ve gotten bored with most tiramisu mutants in San Diego — the horrors drizzled with chocolate syrup, layered with pound cake, etc. — but this was dreamy. The espresso was strong, possibly a tad too bitter, but good with a sweet. Service (everybody Italian and charming) was dandy.

Alas, this is no miniature of Antica; it’s miniature in size, but also in quality — particularly the quality of execution (that week, anyway), and the menu is not just shorter (especially in the antipasti) but less inspired. Perhaps some foods can’t be exported from their homelands without losing a lot in translation — even if their homelands are only eight miles away in La Mesa. ■

Osteria Origano

★★1/2 (Good to Very Good)

3650 5th Avenue, Hillcrest, 619-295-9590; osteriaorigano.com

HOURS: Seven days, 11:30 a.m.–10:00 p.m.
PRICES: Antipasti $6.50–$14; soups, salads, desserts $6–$7.50; pizzas $9.50–$14; pastas $14–$18; mains $16–$20.
CUISINE & BEVERAGES: Italian cuisine of many regions, with slight emphasis on Sicily. Wine list mainly Californian and affordable, with awesome reserve list (e.g., 2000 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet) at prices that are high, but less predatory than most restaurants.
PICK HITS: Napoleone di Mozzarella; Burrata Golosa; Tortino Granchio (crab “cake”); pizza; tiramisu. Likely good bets: Fritto Misto; stuffed mushrooms; ravioli; gnocchi; Cosciotto D’Agnello Brasato (lamb shanks).
NEED TO KNOW: Free parking in garage, but when calling to reserve, ask for precise location. (Do reserve; small room.) Open kitchen, hence noisy. Outdoor front patio with heat lamps. Charming Italian service; nice-casual garb. Great grazing on antipasti and pizza. Loads for lacto-vegetarians, vegans mainly outta luck.

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Comments

syounger Feb. 23, 2011 @ 11:37 a.m.

Now wait a minute. I don't care what you think of the food or the decor, what gourmet dishes you're bored with or anything really about your culinary existential crises. But you can't get away with printing RUMORS about the chef's personal life and business priorities. That's just plain sloppy journalism and even potentially libelous. Bon appetit!

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JudyThePea Feb. 24, 2011 @ 12:11 p.m.

The previous comment really nailed it about printing RUMORS. Be very careful about doing that. What does the personal life of the owner have to do with writing a restaurant review? About as much as the opinions of your dining friends. No one cares! It seems your objectivity has been tossed out the window. Ms. Wise, I doubt very much that you know either owner well enough to refer to them as Frank and Vinnie and to insinuate that Francesco cares more about his Antica Trattoria than Origano is just plain wrong. By the way, did you actually mean to say that you "exploited a friend's friendship" with Francesco's Mother-In-Law? While you managed to take a swipe at Vincenzo's other 3 restaurants, you neglected to mention how decidedly popular they are. For whatever reason, you managed to do this new, wonderful restaurant an unwarrented injustice. Hopefully you were just in a foul mood.

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millerowski Feb. 24, 2011 @ 7:51 p.m.

Regarding both comments above: Restaurants critics ALWAYS need to know what the inner-circle has to say. Restaurant critics are DETECTIVES. A good restaurant critic (and there have been many mediocre critics among SD "critics" who have seemed to be paid advertisers--unlike Ms Wise) experiences the cuisine, the ambiance, the service, the accessibility, and so forth-and reports her findings.

That critic ALSO does research! Where did this chef come from? What are his/her credentials? The comment above that implies that Ms. Wise has invaded "the chef's personal life", but The FACT was that Chef. F WAS actually attending a family funeral in Italy. He, ergo, was not on site during Ms. Wise's visit. And that was what she reported.

Regarding the detective work: Ms. Wise (as far as I can tell--after reading her reviews for several years) does not rely on rumor; she does the research. I see it in every review. BTW,I am not a personal friend of Ms Wise. We have infrequently exchanged emails about restaurants (both being foodies.)

And I believe both of the above posts came as counter-attacks from Francesco Basile fans. BUT I am also a FAN!

BECAUSE I LOVE OSTERIA ORIGANO! And I LOVE ANTICA TRATTORIA! (and have taken friends to both--often!) I wish Chef Francesco Basile and his team much success!

My complaint is about people who comment on Ms. Wise's expertise as a critic:

Comment #1 refers to "rumors" of a chef's personal life (in this case, a family death). I know for a fact that Ms Wise's account was accurate.

Comment #2 seems to complain mostly about the "liberty" Ms. Wise took with the names of the owners of Osteria Origano. To refer to them as "Frank" and "Vinnie" is not out of the question when one has dined in the restaurants of both chef/owners. Furthermore, The Reader is not some uppity, white gloves and pearls weekly. Gimme a break.

Neither of the two above discuss AT ALL the cuisine, the decor, the atmosphere, the service, the locale, the accessibility of Osteria Origano. Thy only attack was aimed at the esteemed restaurant critic of The Reader.

So, let's keep the real focus on the restaurant, the cuisine, the wine, the comfort-level (for ex.I found the stools at OO rather uncomfortable--and there were no alternatives--aka "chairs."), and the service.

IMHO, Ms Wise gave an objective review of her experience at OO-and that of her "posse." (If you object to the idea of a "posse", well, that's another story--but why wouldn't you want to hear what others with different palates had to say?)

I wish all success to Osteria Origano! And I appreciate the reviews of Ms. Wise.

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