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Vivace

7100 Four Seasons Point, Carlsbad

When a respected, deluxe Italian kitchen that's previously featured only chefs FOB from Italy hires a Montana-born, Manhattan-seasoned top toque, it's time to taste again. Vivace's new chef, Bruce Logue, is a protégé of New York superstar chef Mario (Babbo) Batalli. Batalli is known for his authentic rustic Italian cooking -- using every part of any animal that comes into his kitchen (including amateur apprentice chefs, if Bill Buford's best seller Heat is to be believed) -- and his subtle innovations to the traditions.

Our friends Tom and Alma, themselves Italian-American, live near the restaurant, which is in the hotel at Carlsbad's Four Season's Aviara Resort, and we asked them to join us. Their son Rob and daughter-in-law Jennifer had just returned from a long stint in Italy -- teaching, wandering, and enjoying zesty food wherever they roamed. They were mainly in Genoa, where even a workman's lunch is a feast. (Basil! Garlic! Fresh-caught seafood! Carrots two feet long, as sweet as candy!) We invited them, too, hoping to probe their experiences in current Italian cuisine.

You reach Vivace by a short walk through the hotel's first floor. The dining room is fancy but intimate; one area has a fireplace, although, this being high summer, that hardly registered. Outside a heated balcony patio offers a view of the grounds, a quiet alternative for dining in good weather.

We began with a tuna crudo. Crudo, the Venetian version of sashimi, is a great fad in New York -- thanks in large part to chef David Pasternak, who started the craze at Battalli's seafood restaurant, Esca. So far, crudo is largely unknown here. If you look for it at the Little Italy restaurant named for it, you'll get regular Japanese/fusion sushi and sashimi, but I've heard that Stingaree may be putting a more authentic version on the menu. "Crudo is the freshest fish right off the boat, cut with the freshest, best, most flavorful olive oil, lemon juice, and sea salt," says chef Bruce. "It's gone a little further than that, of course, and some chefs are doing crazy things with it." Vivace's rendition is a standard-setter: An unmolded mini-tower of shredded tuna tartare, held together with red onion-marjoram "aioli" (minus any tastable garlic, so it should really be called "house-made mayo"), was topped with a slick of avocado mousse and surrounded by chilled cucumber broth. It was ethereal enough you could bribe Saint Peter with a portion to win your cloud in heaven.

A salumi plate is another New York/San Francisco food fashion you'll find at Vivace and rarely elsewhere in this area. (Region, which will close in late October, will feature house-made salumi the week of October 3.) Here, it arrived as a long dish showcasing thin slices of artisanal cured meats, topped by a chorus line of marinated mushrooms and a puff of frisée salad. Most of the meats were unfamiliar, and even our intelligent waitress couldn't remember all their names, beyond sopressata. These were made by two specialists -- Batalli's father Armandino, up in Seattle, and Paul Bertolli (formerly of Chez Panisse) in the Bay Area. I've been wondering about salumi for a long time -- but the carnivore's collection here left me wondering about how people in Italy would eat it -- straight up like this, or with just a few slices as part of an antipasti platter? The flavors and textures were zesty and interesting, but I wanted more contrasting ingredients (e.g., pickled or stuffed vegetables) to lend relief from the intensity of the meat pile (although the chef tells me that he includes more varied garnishes than Mario ever would).

While eating at Vivace several years ago, I enjoyed my first memorable taste of burrata ("buttery"), a special mozzarella with a seductively creamy center. At that meal, it was served at room temperature. This time, we apparently ordered it at a moment of experimentation, between the previous week's heated version, in a warm tomato broth, and the next week's room-temperature rendition, served as a Caprese with local heirloom tomatoes. Our cheese arrived slightly warmed in a small white bowl, surrounded on the plate by garnishes of imported prosciutto di Parma, Mission figs, and locally grown macadamia nuts. But the moment it was cut open, the cheese cooled, soon solidifying into dairy-flavored chewing gum in a pool of whey. Instead of sharing it around, I guess I should have put a napkin over my head, like a Frenchman embarrassed at eating ortolans (little songbirds), and hoovered it down.

All pastas and risotti can be ordered in appetizer-size portions, lending an opportunity to enjoy more of the restaurant's best dishes. The house makes its own soft pastas -- orecchiette, pappardelle, and stuffed skins, such as ravioli. The dough is laboriously mixed and rolled by hand, not by an industrial machine. Our spectacular agnolotti, with skins as thin as tissue paper, were plumped with fluffy sheep's-milk ricotta. They were garnished with young fava beans, shreds of prosciutto, and a "sauce" of melted imported butter thinned with light cream. Equally triumphant was a risotto made from Carnaroli rice (the ultimate risotto rice) cooked in lobster stock, with a firm-creamy texture. The dish included perfectly cooked Maine lobster tail and leaves of Thai basil, sharper and cleaner than the European basils.

"Black spaghetti" (colored with squid ink) with rock shrimp and Calabrese sausage is a close approximation of a dish at Babbo. It proved controversial at our table, since the hearty noodles were cooked firm. "Are you happy?" Tom asked Alma. "They made it just right for you -- al dente." "Well, I'd rather have it raw, but if they have to cook it, this is perfect," she admitted (or jested, I wasn't sure which). For my partner and me, the black strands gleaming with oil were closer to "al Dante," as in Inferno. They looked sinister and required powerful chewing. The shrimp were sweet and mild, the sausage bits so scant and gentle that they were lost among the ebony ropes. But our friends wiped the bowl clean.

We divided our entrée choices between sea and land. The main-dish accompaniments alter frequently, according to what's available and at its peak, so if you go to the restaurant tomorrow, you'll probably find changes to every plate. Vivace's chef and sous-chef do the purchasing for all the restaurants in the hotel, and that task includes foraging among local farms and artisans for the region's best produce, cheeses, and chocolates.

The wood-fired ahi was a table favorite -- a fine piece of fish, with grillmarks on the surface and a center as scarlet as a rare steak. It came with a smoked and sweetened eggplant caponata scattered with currants, along with broccolini and small, tender calamari rings and tentacles. Everything was perfectly cooked and well matched.

Pacific snapper "In Umido" was a skin-on fillet rubbed with seasonings and citrus, then steamed in an Asian bamboo basket. Our waitress said that the process "sucks the spices down through the skin and into the fish." Well, not exactly -- the skin is an impermeable barrier in fish, and the flesh just tasted like good snapper. The accompaniment was an interesting sweet-sour mixture of corn and citrus juices with a powerfully astringent kick.

An Alaskan halibut fillet was moist and as tasty as this mild species is likely to be. I loved the vegetables around it, including heirloom carrots, fresh shell beans, and especially the tiny sweet cipollini onions from Crow's Pass Farms.

A combination of "wood-fired pork loin" and braised pork belly reminded me of the similar combination I'd recently enjoyed at Blanca. The belly was rich and soft, but the loin was, to my taste, a tad overcooked. The vegetables included pieces of braised fresh Tuscan artichoke heart pickled in-house and broccolini with sautéed red pepper. Soft polenta provided a soothing note.

Flawlessy cooked veal tenderloin "al Tartufi" came with slices of mild summer truffles mingling with wild mushrooms to form a sauce for the meat. A single medium-size piece of floured fried sweetbread was rich and bouncy. Here, garnishes were fresh golden and red currants, fingerling potatoes roasted too dry, and a few deveined leaves of mustard greens.

A New York steak arrived with multicolored mustards in separate ramekins -- an herbal green one colored with parsley; an olive green honey-mustard; and a dark-red Italian fruit mostarda, sharp and sweet and irresistible. The steak came precisely medium-rare, as Alma ordered it. "I think the restaurant is even better than it was before," she said. "I especially like the way the veggies vary from plate to plate."

Unbeknownst to us, there are also off-menu items that the servers offer to -- the few? The proud? The hotel guests? These are a 40-ounce dry-aged USDA Prime grade prime rib (for $95) and a small, juicy roasted "Babbo chicken." Both are sized for a foursome to share. (Forty ounces of marbled cow? I think you could stretch that to feed a few more.)

The elaborate desserts by French-born pastry chef Franck Riffaud include thick, rich gelati and refreshing sorbetti; we loved the intense black cherry-flavored sorbet. A creamy panna cotta based on yogurt and honey was interesting, although, according to Rob, it strayed far from the airy versions he'd been eating in Italy. A peach and pistachio mousse parfait was topped with so much whipped cream that I lost patience digging through the clouds to reach the fruit, although I'm sure it was delicious under there. A flourless chocolate cake was dense and crackly with nuts, garnished with a very sweet chocolate syrup. Dinner ends charmingly with complimentary mignardises (free sweets) -- chocolates from the superb Carlsbad candy maker Chuao.

"This has really been an amazing meal," said Rob. "But of all the dishes we had here, none was Italian, or at least not like anything we ate in Italy." Well, he was probably right. This is Italian food that's based on peasant fare but adapted to serve the latter-day Medicis and their friends in that far-off, glittering Italian province called Manhattan. And now, we, too, can eat like big-city mice, albeit for a big-city price.

ABOUT THE CHEF

"I was 14 when I started working at a guest ranch in Montana, where I grew up," says Bruce Logue, aged 31. "I was a dishwasher, prep cook, things like that. The first person I worked with was from Staten Island, New York. His name was Steve Petallino and he was obviously Italian and he just made cooking seem really cool.... He lived a pretty cool lifestyle, and he got a lot of respect because he was good at what he did.

"I worked in restaurants and guest ranches from age 14 to 18, and when I got out of high school, I went to culinary school in Vermont, the New England Culinary Academy. After that, I started working -- I worked in Jackson Hole at Snake River Grill, I worked in Boston for a few years, I got my B.A. in food and beverage management along the way, worked in Atlanta, and spent a summer traveling in Europe. Since then, I go back to Italy every chance I get, to eat and study.

"I worked just over two years in New York at Babbo, as sous-chef under Mario Batalli. He had tons of influence over my cooking. That's when I turned the corner and decided I really just wanted to do Italian food, learn about Italian food and language and culture. Up until then I leaned more toward French and New American. But when I worked with Mario, I discovered that the way I thought about food was Italian.... He's very big on handmade pasta and salumi. He's not just traditional, he has a kind of twang to everything he does. He likes things a little lighter -- tighter, cleaner sauces. He's very into meats that are usually waste cuts -- ears, feet, the extremities. He gets a whole pig and uses the entire animal, even rendering down the fat.... He covers every region of Italy in his cooking and at his different restaurants -- he's the full-on expression of Italy to New Yorkers, who are pretty savvy about eating.

"I differ from him in that some of the things I do are more French, or I should say contemporary -- for instance, we cook some things in sous vide. Our antipasti are a little cleaner and more elaborate than his -- and we serve them on decent china. And we have a wood-burning oven, which he doesn't have in any of his restaurants. That, to me, is the essence of this restaurant -- the wood-fired grill and oven. It puts such heart and soul into the food, and you cannot replicate those flavors without an open fire."

Why did he leave Babbo? "I really didn't like New York. I wanted to get back out west. The guy who was taking over the property here, the regional manager for the Four Seasons chain, was very into food. He'd worked with Mario 20 years ago in Santa Barbara, and they remained friends. So when he was looking for a chef, he called Mario, and the timing was right for me. They always had Italian chefs here and at all the Four Seasons Hotels restaurants, but they were looking for something fresh, less like 'hotel food.' As a company-wide decision, they decided to be more like freestanding restaurants, so they hired a guy from one.

"Working at a hotel, now and then I have to fight to keep something on the menu that I know isn't gonna sell. We have to include so many things that are right up the middle -- a salad! a pasta! an entrée! -- and sometimes we have 50 percent of our customers order the 'right up the middle' things. Other nights we'll have some pretty interesting people eating here. In San Diego...you gotta come into the game knowing that you're going to be educating people as much as you are showing them cool food. You're bringing them along. Where in New York, they're already there -- 'What else ya got?' The biggest problem I have here is the people that must have things that aren't on the menu, like a Caesar salad, or they order a dish we make but want to alter or add or take something away from the way we prepare it. They're usually here in summer, typically a six-top with three kids. It's very difficult for us in the kitchen. Whereas in New York, people that have waited two months for a reservation don't come in to screw around with your menu. But in a hotel dining room in San Diego, you have to learn to be very accommodating.

"But one thing that's really cool about San Diego -- every month there's something new to make you smile as far as food is concerned. Chefs are coming here, new products are showing up, you start to see new things on menus. It's really an emerging food scene, and that's exciting."

GOOD FOOD, GOOD CAUSE, GREAT PRICE

Dine out at some of our best local restaurants the weeks of September 18--22 and September 25--29 to benefit Share Our Strength, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending childhood hunger. You'll get a three-course prix fixe meal (including complimentary Italian bottled water) for $20 for lunch, $35 for dinner (plus beverages, tax, and tip). For a list of restaurants and reservations online, go to www.usadineout.com.

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