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. ■
★★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.