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Piatti Ristorante

2182 Avenida de la Playa, La Jolla

The Lynnester was saying, "I used to go to Piatti all the time with my friend Marsha, but she moved, and now I never get there. I really miss their lemon ravioli." "Hey, I'll be glad to go with you!" I piped up. "I've always been curious, and if you say it's good, it must be." A few weeks later, we were there.

"I thought you didn't do chains," Samurai Jim kidded me. "This is a chain?" I asked. Lynne owned that it was, with maybe three or four locations. It turns out to be larger still, with a dozen restaurants all over the state and in Texas and Oregon -- but the original was in Marin County, and the first few additions were in Northern California wine country, so the "Bay Area foodie" ethos was built in (and I'm happy to say, it remains). Chefs at each restaurant have the freedom to buy local produce and create dishes to please the locals. When we looked at our menus, the first thing that leaped out from the appetizer list was animelle -- sweetbreads. Another attention-grabber was a "salad" of warm grilled romaine wrapped in prosciutto. "Wow, these are pretty sophisticated dishes," I said. "If it's a chain, 'tis a far, far better chain than Macaroni Grill or Buca di Beppo -- and Olive Garden, it sure ain't."

The restaurant is on a cute, cozy street in the La Jolla Shores neighborhood, and you enter past a cozy, darkish bar. The dining room is airy and bright, with glazed terra cotta tile flooring and a soundproofed white ceiling (which doesn't help much against the yackety-yak that the hard floor magnifies). A lovely, heated garden patio is tucked away to the side, and blessed are they who get to eat there.

We began with carpaccio, which Lynne recalled fondly. Her memory proved accurate: It was well above the norm in tenderness, quality, and the gentle, fresh flavor of the thin-sliced raw beef tenderloin, with a perfectly balanced citrus-and-oil dressing. "The thing I love about Piatti is, it's so consistent from one time to the next," Lynne said. "If something's good, it's always good."

Even better were two sophisticated starters. Our table's favorite dish that evening had two hearts of romaine lettuce grilled in wide girdles of fine prosciutto and lightly dressed in a devastating hazelnut-oil vinaigrette. (With a deep inhale, you could smell the nuts the oil was pressed from.) The firm-tender lettuce had a pleasing faint bitterness, and the cured ham surrounding it was rich and piggy. The chef came up with this dish as a modification on the more classic combination of grilled radicchio with pancetta; we preferred this version. "Everybody loves romaine," I observed. "Radicchio is more challenging." Eating it side by side with the sweetbread appetizer was a lucky match of complementary flavors. The sweetbreads were juicy little bites, semicrisp outside with melting centers, sautéed with cremini mushrooms to mirror their earthiness without imposing the burden of a heavy sauce. Ahh, bella Italia! They know how to eat there!

We continued with a shared midcourse of the Lynnester's fave, ravioli al limone -- housemade squares (about 2 1/2 inches to a side) with thin, tender pasta skins bulging with ricotta and a touch of basil, all bathed in a seductive lemon-cream sauce equipoised between tartness and suavity. Underneath, a surprise gift: The pouches were plated over thin lemon slices and barely wilted arugula. My sole quibble was that the ricotta, a tad granular, was not as creamy as the very best brands.

Given how enchanting this single pasta was -- and the wealth of pasta dishes on this menu -- you should know some of the other choices I'd have loved to try, given enough nights to do so. I was sorely tempted by cavatappi with house-made Italian sausage, mushrooms, spinach, and roasted tomato sauce, and by the evening's special of pasta carbonara with green peas. Then there are mint-touched penne with red wine--braised lamb, rotolo filled with wild mushrooms in porcini sauce, and saffron pappardelle with shrimp. If only Piatti was my neighborhood restaurant! I'd be eating there once a week to try every pasta, as so many local customers seem to do.

The brief gap between pastas and entrées afforded us a chance to eyeball our fellow diners and their choices. On a Friday night, even as late as 8:00 p.m., many were families, some running to three and four generations, with kids ranging from infants through middle school. We lucked out since the kids were all right that night (don't take this as a guarantee), well-behaved junior gourmets-in-training, with "restaurant manners" well in hand. The babies didn't shriek, nor did the toddlers throw food or tantrums. (In that way, too, Piatti is no Olive Garden.) Several families had chosen pizza as their midcourse. The pizza margherita (with fresh tomatoes and mozzarella, named for a dead queen of Italy) was garnished with plentiful chopped Italian parsley to create the red-white-green color scheme of Italy's flag and deepen the flavors of the topping. The pizza crusts were rolled very thin in the authentic Italian style.

Protein entrées are few and all Northern Italian with a Tuscan bent: Three out of four on the regular menu (roast chicken, chicken breast, and veal piccata) involve lemon juice. "I hear the roast chicken is good," said Lynne -- but we had already committed to the veal, which also had lemon juice. When the waitress took our orders, she mentioned the sides that come with each dish with a question mark in her voice -- hinting that you can substitute other sides from the menu. In fact, Lynne has often done so in the past. The veal piccata comes with triangular cakes of dark, sticky, fried risotto, which we tried this time but wouldn't go for again. Lynne usually substitutes the lemon ravioli, their sauce sleekly mirroring the sharper lemon juice of the piccata's caper sauce. Whatever it comes with, the veal is a fine rendition, tender meat in a clean, tart sauce -- a dish that's always lively if the kitchen is as competent as it is here.

Our best entrée was the fish du jour -- sea bass with tomatoes, shallots, capers, thyme, and white wine. The fish was cooked just right, moist and tender, without our having said a word about doneness. The accompanying vegetable mixture made a light, fresh sauce, with new potatoes as the anchoring starch.

The most expensive main course was the least rewarding. Bistecca, a grilled rib-eye steak, just wasn't very interesting. Although it's Prime grade from one of our best meat vendors, the beef was on the tough side, and despite the sassy herbed-butter topping, it had less flavor than expected. "Turf Club's is better," said Jim. "Yeah, Turf's garlic marinade is some kind of magic," Lynne said, "and their beef is tastier, too." However, after a couple of days in the fridge, the cold beef leftovers from Piatti developed more depth of flavor, making a great sandwich. Mysterious. The garlic mashed potatoes served alongside at the restaurant were boring, with the grainy texture that comes of skimping on dairy products. (I'll substitute the mushroom rotolo next time.)

Piatti does an expert job of accommodating diners who eat "family-style." When we told our waitress, Amanda, that we'd be sharing all the food, she thanked us with apparent sincerity and arranged to accommodate us. For each course, we received small individual plates to spoon out portions from the larger plates in the center. Happily, our small-looking table proved plenty roomy enough to fit all the dishware, even with three large entrée platters. Amanda also immediately grasped that three sharers of a steak would need not one but three steak knives. Even the busser was good: Once he understood that we were doggy-bagging a bit of everything (to be torn apart, examined, and retasted under bright kitchen fluorescents -- though he didn't know that), we didn't have to keep asking.

The dessert list could perhaps be more interesting. A lotta gelati. A flan-variant. A (yawn) tiramisu. I wish that non-Italian restaurants had never discovered tiramisu (it takes about ten minutes to assemble, which may be why it's become ubiquitous) and ruined it in so many fiendishly clever ways -- because now I'm too wary of the miscarriages to order it. I'm sure Piatti's is better than most. We did find a couple of contenders: A torta di limetta is a tart topped with key-lime custard studded with fresh raspberries, over a thin bottom crust, set over a pool of raspberry sauce. The custard is a perfect balance between lightness and richness, tart and sweet, with a velvety texture. Even chocoholic Jim (when he isn't a samurai he's a chocoholic) preferred it to the rather stodgy chocolate bread pudding. The espresso was decent, and Amanda brought it right along with the desserts, as requested.

Piatti proves that a restaurant doesn't have to sell its soul if it multiplies. In La Jolla, the food is soaringly superior to a majority of the local standalone Italian eateries -- it cleaves to the spirit of real Italian cuisine (from Italy, that is, not Hoboken), a country where farm folk pick vegetables twice a day and townspeople shop at produce stands for lunch, and again for dinner, to get the freshest veggies. Piatti's menu embodies those unimpeachable culinary virtues -- freshness, simplicity, and local seasonality. It's even better to learn from a Piatti veteran like Lynne that the quality of each dish doesn't vary with the chef's mood, the size of the crowd, or the phase of the moon. Here, if you love something, it will always be there for you, just the way you enjoyed it last time.

ABOUT THE CHEF

Chef Pepe Ccapatinta has been with the La Jolla Piatti since its opening nearly 18 years ago, when he transferred south from the Sonoma location. The odd spelling of his name is not a typo: He's from Cuzco, Peru, high in the Andes. (Maybe the extra c stemmed from somebody gasping for breath at 13,000 feet while spelling the name.) "I was cooking since I was a child," he says. "I came from a large family -- nine brothers, so with my parents and grandma we were 12 people in the household. Every time we cooked, we were cooking for an army.

"I graduated from college in Peru with a degree in hotel management, tourism, and beverages. I came to the States 21 years ago, looking for a career in my field, and I ended up getting a job in a kitchen. From there I went on to work in various restaurants in the Bay Area, Napa Valley, Sonoma. I was cooking French and Italian food, and I had the chance to go to Italy three times. I picked up what real Italian people eat. I went through the countryside, going to little trattorias to learn what the local people eat. The areas I've explored most are Florence, Parma, and for the seafood, Liguria. This summer I'm going back and taking my wife there for a month.

"I opened the Piatti in Sonoma, worked some years with them, and then came here and opened the La Jolla branch. I've been here ever since. Each store [of Piatti] has their own chef and menu. They try to cater to their area. You'll find, tops, two or three dishes carried from one area of Piatti to another. For instance, we have animelle, sweetbreads; not all Piattis do. It is not a top seller, but people who love them order them, because they know they can't find them at many other restaurants here."

I asked how he managed to keep the food so consistent. Part of the answer is that most of his staff have been with him for years. He also trains them to maintain standards, regardless of how busy the restaurant is. As for substituting side dishes, it can be difficult on busy nights, but they take such requests anyway. "We're here to please the customers, so we do it," he says.

Why is the menu heavier on pasta than entrées? The answer is economics -- plus, pleasing local diners. Pastas, at moderate prices, sell very well, especially since kids at this family-oriented restaurant love them. It also benefits the restaurant's bottom line. "We make more money on the pastas. Your food costs are much less. On a steak my food cost is 40 percent, and on a pasta my food cost is 15 or 20 percent. And I hate to gouge people. We can charge less for the pastas. I don't want people to come here and feel, 'Oh, it's La Jolla, they can charge whatever they can get.'

"My philosophy is to have a good experience in a restaurant, starting with the hostess, then the food, and always feeling like you are taken care of."

Congratulatory note: Baja! Cooking on the Edge by local chef Deborah Schneider (currently food-boss at the Del Mar Racetrack) was named by Food and Wine Magazine as one of its top 25 cookbooks of the year. The book fully deserves the accolade: It's a superb cookbook full of in-depth regional detail. Even if you don't want to try cooking Baja-style (the recipes are awesomely well researched), if you plan to travel in Baja, you'll learn what to eat there, where and why, right down to which taco stand to seek out at the north (nontouristy) end of Rosarito. Plus, Schneider brings her wicked sense of humor to the prose. (The section describing various chiles had me LOL.) Way to go, Deb! Also a note of gossip: Last chance for fans of Amiko Gubbins's cuisine to enjoy her unique creations at Parallel 33. She's handing the reins to another chef in June so that she can "explore other options."

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