Dorian Hargrove 8:30 p.m., Dec. 12
Osteria Romantica, on Avenida del Playa in La Jolla, could be straight out of a movie set, from it's pretty patio and checkered tablecloths to it's handsome, accented waiters and sunny, cheerful dining room. It's a lovely place for a date, an anniversary or a birthday, but it still has a comfortable neighborhood feel.
Osteria Romatica is one of the several local Italian eateries co-owned by Antonio Mastellone, of Arrivederci Ristorante, Buon Appetito and Sogno di Vino. His partner at OR is Fabio Speziali, who used to wait tables at Arrivederci.
It's early Sunday afternoon, pretty near to the end of lunch service, so I check "Are you still serving lunch?" at the front door. Yes, yes, no problem, come in. Due to the odd hour, we have the place nearly to ourselves.
It's so relaxing to sit and enjoy our wine, prosecco for me, pinot noir for John, and listen to the music. I don't understand the words, but I'm certain they are singing about the moon and June and other sweet things. The wine list has some interesting selections, Italian of course, but also Argentine, Chilean, South African, American, Israeli, with several available by the glass ($5-$10/glass).
Along with the wine, we receive a loaf of warm bread and a bowl of spicy tomato sauce. The bread is fresh and yeasty, with plenty of big holes to grab the tomato chunks. The sauce is made with high quality canned tomatoes, I believe they use Alta Cucina brand, and it has a surprisingly strong kick. There's a small whole tomato at the bottom, no matter, we just cut it up and eat it too. I'm a firm believer in using good canned tomatoes over fresh in sauce, unless it's late summer and your tomatoes are dead ripe.
Osteria Romantica has a regular lunch menu and daily specials. I toy with the idea of spaghetti and meatballs, a good barometer for any Italian restaurant, but decide instead on Pappardelle with Braised Lamb ($16.95). "Ah!" our waiter says, "It's the best thing on the menu."
It's a very good dish. The lamb has been slowly braised with aromatics and wine, then shredded. It's been added to three kinds of mushrooms, white, shiitake and portobello, olives, and rosemary, and finished with brandy and a touch of cream. The rich brown sauce is stirred into the pasta, in traditional Italian style, rather than sitting on top of it, the better to soak into the nicely al dente pappardelle. There's lots of meat in it, tender and succulent, I barely make it through a third of the bowl before I have to stop. I want to order dessert, too, and I have to save room.
John's Gnocchi Gratinati ($12.95) has tender pillows of pasta in a lush parmesan cream sauce. It's been finished briefly in a hot oven to barely caramelize the top. The gnocchi are excellent, soft and yielding, but with an every so slightly toothy center. I taste, then taste again and again, in spite of my happiness with my own dish. Actually, we're both eating out of each other bowls quite unabashedly.
We shared the Pear Tart ($6.95) for dessert. I couldn't actually pinpoint any pear, but it could have been masked by the chocolate sauce on top. I would order it without the sauce next time, it certainly doesn't need the embellishment. The buttery, rich pastry crust and lovely frangipane center would be nice with a bit of whipped cream or a small scoop of gelato.
The only thing that Osteria Romantica is lacking is a nice sofa for me to take my post-lunch nap on. But then, they'd never get rid of me.
2151 Avenida de la Playa
La Jolla, CA 92037
Lunch daily - 11:30 am - 2:30 pm
Dinner - 5:00 pm - 10:00 pm weekdays 5:00 pm - 11:00 pm weekends
Children's menu available.
Free street parking.
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