Editor's Note: This restaurant has closed since publication.
Some restaurants exist solely to give pleasure and ease, rather than serve up social scenes or culinary coups. They're not your showoffy Manolo stilettos but your Kenneth Cole slides, offering comfort and craftsmanship. The surroundings are civilized, the food enjoyable, the service adept and considerate. Celebrities eat at such restaurants when they weary of the limelight. So it is with Osteria del Pescatore.
An enjoyable meal there five years ago has had me longing for another dinner, and when I phoned my North County Italian posse-mates, Tom and Alma, they were delighted to accept an invitation to revisit. "We celebrated Tom's birthday there three years ago," said Alma. "We'd love to try it again." We all knew what to expect -- no surprises aside from those on the nightly "specials" list.
The interior at Osteria is simple and bright; white tablecloths provide a formal touch, but in all but the worst weather nearly everyone prefers to eat under the heat lamps on the terrace. The patio is glass-enclosed (to squelch the street noise) and affords views of both the boulevard and, blocks downhill, the sea. A Rat Pack soundtrack plays in the background. (That, too, hasn't changed in five years.) Despite these signals of urbanity, the stone, brick, and wood architecture conspire to make you feel you're eating in a Tuscan vineyard. As the meal proceeds, each dish arrives on an Italian ceramic plate or bowl, with a unique design based on the fare and the "Osteria del Pescatore" moniker fired into the glaze: You can't help feeling tickled when trout comes plated on a goofy-looking fish.
The printed menu is a tome, the specials page tucked inside the front cover. These change about once a week, with minor adjustments penciled in every few days. No insult intended to the regular menu, but the specials are the dishes most likely to dazzle.
My friends and I bounced back and forth between the menus, enjoying hot little rosemary buns (baked in-house) and routine olive-oil--tomato bagna. Our first choice: asparagi alla griglia con salmone affumicato, which arrived as a fan of grilled asparagus spears, each nestled in a Belgian endive leaf. At the base of the fan sat four slices of Norwegian cold-smoked salmon strewn with trendy caperberries. These resemble raspberry-size capers, but with a milder, less salty flavor than their junior cousins, and the combination proved stylish and savory.
Even better was a napoleone di pomodori, a stack of juicy low-acid red and yellow tomato slices layered with ricotta salata, salted dry ricotta, lightly dressed in good olive oil. The tomatoes, from a farm in Carlsbad, seemed miraculous in mid-April, when home gardeners are eyeing the green marbles on their Early Girl plants. (I suspect a greenhouse.) The refreshing insalata della casa combines mixed spring greens (some gentle, some sharp) with Mandarin orange wedges and strips of marinated calamari, including a few tentacle flowers.
Among the specials was a lobster risotto -- a difficult test for any kitchen. But Osteria knows risotto. The rice was more gooey than chewy, with an opulent lobster-broth flavor, and garnishes of chopped tomato, zucchini, eggplant, and Florence fennel. Now, whenever a food reviewer sneaks into a restaurant, at least one thing goes wrong in the kitchen, whether it's cremated brûlée, crispy-critter cream puffs, or (this time) escaped crustacean. The risotto was garnished with halved lobster shells, and we all received lobster crackers to extract the meat -- but the shells were mysteriously empty. Hungry cat? Snacking sous chef? I'm confident, however, that if you order the same dish, you will get lobster meat.
The entrée that drove my table mad with food lust was one of the night's specials, a special special. Spaghetti al cartoccio featured spaghetti, clams, rock shrimp, and artichoke hearts baked in a tomato sauce with garlic and a hint of anchovies. (Only anchovy lovers will perceive their presence.) Baked in a sealed packet of parchment paper, the clams open and spill their juices into the sauce, and the flavors permeate the pasta. Peeled open before serving, the parchment package resembles a big white flower with a red center that exudes an appetizing perfume.
We tried a similar but unbaked combination from the regular menu, linguine mare e monte, which includes clams, langostinos, rock shrimp, and fish fillet pieces cooked in a tomato base with fresh red and yellow tomato chunks and black olives. Compared to the paperbound pasta, it was tasty but ordinary; you've eaten variations at other Italian "fine dining" restaurants.
Another special, handwritten at the bottom of the list, was trotta piccata, pan-seared trout with lemon-caper butter. This treatment is usually accorded to pounded veal or chicken scallops but proved even better anointing the crisp skin of two trout fillets. For a garnish, the kitchen faced and conquered the perilous gnocchi challenge. (Ill-made gnocchi have the mouth-feel of used chewing gum.) These dainty dumplings had just the right texture and were swathed in a Mediterranean vegetable sauce of tomato and eggplant.
Tom was interested in the regular menu's venison entrée, an unlikely find in springtime. Indeed, it was out of stock (for the next six months or so). We were happy to substitute a rack of lamb -- three double rib chops rubbed with garlic and coated with a goat-cheese crust. The meat came done to our order of medium-rare and was tender enough to cut with a butter knife (although the waiter brought steak knives). Alongside was a medley of young, seasonal vegetables, including a white radish with a rosemary sprig tangled like a hair-ornament in its green topknot.
When dinner's done, a waiter displays a tray of the day's desserts, all made in-house. Your selections arrive fresh from the kitchen, not from the fading samples on the tray.
The least gratifying of our choices was panna cotta -- "Italian flan," as our handsome Oaxacan waiter called the delicate, eggless custard. Each of us took a bite and was puzzled. "It's completely flavor-neutral," my partner finally piped up. "That's it!" the rest chorused. Scattered with blueberries and served in the center of a color wheel of light sauces -- orange, raspberry, and white crème anglaise -- the embellishments lacked the power to whisk the custard out of the neutral zone.
A lemon mousse tart, on a thin crumb-crust, was a pouf of airy lemon essence. Not too sweet, not too tart. It's capped with whipped cream and stands in a moat of orange sauce, which in this case isn't just decoration but essential to the flavor. Finally, rising from another color wheel of sauces is the stunning torta alla Nonna ("Grandma's Cake"), a wedge of shortcake filled with lemon curd, ground almonds, and pine nuts. On top is a crackly sugared crust, scattered with slivered almonds. As you bring the fork to your mouth, there's the faint, alluring scent of rosewater.
We were delighted with the food, and with the consistently high quality that brought the four of us together again. The service also stood out -- it was kindly, knowledgeable, and friendly throughout the meal. That makes Osteria del Pescatore one of those increasingly rare restaurants where life, for a few hours, seems as sweet as Grandma's Cake.
ABOUT THE CHEF-OWNER
Oddly enough, the chef-owner of Osteria de Pescatore isn't an Italian -- he's just married to one. The wife of Mexican-born George Ramirez comes from Naples, but, says Ramirez, she exerts only a small influence on the menu: She's the taster for new dishes. More responsible is the enviable array of local restaurants and resorts where the chef worked before founding Osteria del Pescatore six years ago.
"My mother was a wonderful cook," he says. "I became interested in cooking professionally and started in the business at the bottom and worked my way up. I liked the food industry, so I stayed in the restaurant business. I worked at Sally's in the Hyatt downtown, I worked in Rancho Valencia for four years, and I was a chef at a place called Tapenade -- same name as the place in La Jolla, but this one was in Rancho Valencia. At the same time I was working at Rancho Valencia Resort, I worked at Delicias," he says. At these restaurants, he learned his craft from several famed émigré French chefs. He also evidently learned how to run the "front of the house" to create a pampering, resortworthy atmosphere.
He grew interested in Italian cooking during an earlier stint at Scalini, a posh Italian restaurant in Del Mar. Pursuing this line of interest, in 1992 he worked for six months in Salerno, south of Naples, in order to better learn the cuisine.
In time, he got together the wherewithal to open Osteria del Pescatore. "A lot of famous people come to the restaurant," he said. Luckily, the night I ate there, there were no celebs present to distract me from the food.