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Primavera Ristorante

932 Orange Avenue, Coronado

Fade to May 1990. I was on assignment for the WashPost and had been put up at the Hotel del Coronado, the subject of my piece. Several times, while out and about, I passed the still-new Primavera (Italian for "springtime") and gazed longingly at the posted menu. Alas, there'd be no springtime for me -- the paper only sprang for minimal meal expenses, leaving me stuck with Denny's and delis.

Cut to the present. You may have heard me talk about Paul and Janie, old friends currently sentenced to live in El Paso. Once a year they get time off to attend a conference in San Diego, and this visit they stayed at a hotel in Coronado (not the Del). Janie and Paul are passionate about good Italian food, and Primavera was near enough their lodging to add no pain or strain to the jet lag. Besides, restaurants often change as they age (same as the rest of us), and Primavera deserved a fresh look.

First impressions can be everything, and the restaurant's ingress is impressive. You pass an enclosed bar (which separates drinkers from diners) and enter a handsome room with subdued lighting. There are two levels: the first resembles an orchestra pit; the second, up a few steps, a box-seat tier. Most of the white-clothed tables are large, fronting upholstered banquettes with leather seats. The facing upholstered chairs are armed and comfortable. Potted dwarf cypress and majestic urns preside on lofty shelves, and swingy jazz from the '40s (Ella and Ellington) plays in the background. "Reeks of class," Paul murmured.

All too soon, we realized that those oversize tables are so closely spaced that the servers must choreograph their moves. We were seated equidistant between two increasingly vocal parties of eight. "If it weren't for the noise," said Janie, "this place would be really romantic." A few nights later, after our friends had taken off, my partner and I returned for an early-evening dinner. The room was quiet, the mood mellow, but the staff were putting together a table for 14 next to us. "Don't worry," said the maître d' as he saw us counting chairs. "You'll be done before they get here."

The menu runs more than 50 items, plus four or five nightly specials (recited by the waiter). The food is not distinctively regional but draws from America's favorite Italian cuisines -- Tuscany, Piemonte, Rome, Liguria, Naples, Sicily. We discovered that Primavera's strengths are the opposite of most restaurants, which turn out amusing appetizers and less exciting entrées. Here, the appetizers are mere opening acts; the entrées are the stars.

Paul lusted for the Funghi Ripieni, mushrooms stuffed with minced veal and prosciutto and topped with melted fontina cheese. The filling was luscious, the herbed-wine sauce a little insubstantial. Calamari Luciana, Janie's choice, suffered no such problem: The squid rings and tentacles were swathed in a garlicky fresh-tomato sauce. We mopped the plate clean with slices of a fine Bread and Cie sourdough baguette.

A house specialty called Bagna Caoda [sic] Primavera was pleasant but not what we expected of a dish of that name. Usually, bagna cauda ("hot bath") implies vegetables cooked at the table in a fondue of anchovy-infused olive oil. The Primavera version is an already-cooked antipasto platter with grilled eggplant, roasted red peppers, chewy oil-preserved sun-dried tomatoes, Montrachet goat cheese, and Grana Padano Parmesan, all bathed in a light, lemony sauce. An appetizer of marinated roast peppers with anchovies offered another odd rendition: The pre-roasted peppers are sautéed to order in copious quantities of cooking-quality olive oil (not extra-virgin) and served hot.

At our second visit, my partner was in the mood for minestrone. In the spring-light broth, each vegetable retained its identity -- I was glad we'd declined the offer of Parmesan on top. We enjoyed a salad of baby spinach in a gentle balsamic dressing, scattered with pancetta bits, sautéed white mushroom slices, and puffs of a creamy, powerful gorgonzola cheese. However, the "house specialty" Insalata Caesar is far from special. I have to keep reminding myself that Caesar is dead. (Et tu, Primavera?)

Our Cal-Tex foursome shared a pasta as a middle course, Italian-style. The Gnocchi alla Sarda displayed fine technique, with pillowy potato dumplings surrounded by a creamy fresh tomato sauce augmented with basil, shallots, minced prosciutto di Parma, and a subtle touch of anchovy (you'd have to know it's there to taste it). I soon realized Primavera's authentic Italian sauce-formula: A group of basic sauces are cooked in less than half an hour, then amended to order with the flavorings that each dish requires. There's no vat of Italian-American one-formula-fits-all red sauce hiding in this kitchen.

The highlight of the evening was our introduction to a fish that none of us had ever met before: Albino King Salmon, wild-caught in the seas off Seattle. Only one in a hundred of the species carries this genetic mutation. The aristocratic white flesh has a milder flavor than its common (pink-fleshed) kin. Our moist, grilled fillet was topped with sea scallops and set on a bed of young spinach in herbed cream sauce.

Every entrée comes with approximately the same seasonal vegetables (with minor variations from plate to plate). The vegetables change nightly, chef's choice. That evening's assortment included baby brussels sprouts, asparagus, and slim young carrots, plus cucumber rounds for the fish, and pan-roasted potatoes for the meat.

Veal chops with fresh porcini mushroom sauce, prosciutto, and mozzarella was another of the evening's specials. The giant double-chop was grilled until done with a pink interior. A sheet of imported prosciutto under the melted cheese topping lent depth of flavor to the mild meat. But with a sauce like this one, you could make boiled shoes taste good. Porcini (a.k.a. cèpes) are European wild mushrooms most often dried and rehydrated. The fresh ones are costly but worth every dollar. I did wish for better meat; formula-fed veal may be popular, but the flesh smells faintly like Similac. (The menu includes a near-identical dish made with chicken, Pollo alla Valdostana; but unless it's a special, its porcini are likely to be dried.)

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