3650 Fifth Avenue #103, Hillcrest
As mad fans of Trattoria Antica in La Mesa, my friend the Lynnester and I were thrilled to hear that its exuberant Sicilian chef Francesco Basile had opened a new place in Hillcrest. (Here, his partners are the family that owns and runs Greystone, Ossetra, and Panevino in the Gaslamp, news that doesn’t necessarily fill me with joy, given how much better Antica is — in flavors, comfort, and hospitality — than all three of this trio put together.) As a New York expat who lived for five early-adult years in Manhattan’s Little Italy, Antica was the first restaurant I’d found in California, including San Francisco, to offer a sizeable selection of the joyous Southern Italian tastes of home.
Osteria Origano (the Italian spelling of the herb) is a fairly small dining room in an apparently new building. (Fred and I never managed to find the garage, but lucked into a free space right in front.) One wall is handsomely paved with wine-box slats. Most tables are two-tops or undersized four-tops. Seating is on well-padded but minimalist backless stools. We’d reserved, and were rewarded with a joined pair of two-tops against a wall, so Lynne and I enjoyed back support and were comfortable. I don’t know how Fred and Ben felt. They didn’t moan or groan, but I’ve heard from other friends that the stools gave them backaches. A bright open kitchen with bar-style seating in front occupies most of one wall, upping the noise level considerably, and moody oil paintings from local artists hang on the others. Looking into the kitchen, I spotted a mature chef (presumably the chef de cuisine) working hard — but he was not Francesco.
The menu was devised by Francesco in collaboration with his partner Vincenzo LoVerso, an owner of the three Gaslamp restaurants named above. The menu is meant to evolve and change with the seasons and includes numerous cold and hot antipasti, salads, soup du jour, lotsa pasta and tempting pizzas, as well as entrées from all over Italy. Most dishes include fresh, lively vegetables, an authentically Italian characteristic that I (and my doctor, and probably your doctor) deeply appreciate. A lot of the greenery is arugula, but hey, bring it on!
You start with thick-sliced bread, baguette-size but heavier, served with a made-at-table bagna of olive oil and balsamic — with too much balsamic, Lynne and I agreed. I like it, she doesn’t, but too much is too much. Our cold appetizers were both terrific. The Napoleone di Mozzarella featured melted whole-milk cheese layered with sliced eggplant and roasted red peppers, with extra-virgin balsamic glaze, and oregano. Bad part: the tomatoes were winter-pink cardboard. I can get better from Vons.com by paying extra for vine-ripened or organic. If price is a problem, sliced ripe Romas would make good substitutes during cold weather. Still, the rest came together in a lush medley.
My crazy-making favorite (gotta stop gobbling!) was Burrata Golosa, very young mozzarella with a still-liquid center, refilled with mascarpone, served over arugula with flavor-bursting, heat-blasted organic cherry tomatoes drizzled with basil-infused extra-virgin olive oil. As Howlin’ Wolf sang: “Great googly moogly!” You can shorten that to “great goo!”
I used spoonfuls of burrata for palate relief between alluring bites of the sparky Tortino Granchio, sprawling crab cakes (with no evident filler), which were on the spicy side — perhaps from the biting white remoulade sauce — served with refreshing cantaloupe chutney.
Our other hot antipasto, Quaglie Piemontese, offered simply grilled boneless quail pieces served over a thin slick of a Nebbiolo wine and honey sauce. The just-okay birdie (plain and slightly overcooked) came with sticks of firm polenta. I usually love polenta, whether soft or refried, but not so much these rectangles, which seemed dull. I’d been expecting more butter or cheese to enrich the batter and make it softer and spongier. One of my email pals of good palate, “millerowski” (you’ve seen that name in website posts), recommends the Fritto Misto instead: Like me, she’s bored with most local fried calamari, but this one includes artichoke and two sauces.
I was tempted by the signature Insalata Origano (a multi-ingredient extravaganza), but Lynne dissuaded me. “I tried it last time I was here. Ehh.” We were facing a huge amount of food, anyway, since we meant to eat dessert at the end. So, we tossed aside the Italian tradition of a separate pasta course, instead including pasta and pizza among our entrées.
For the pasta, I wanted to try one with house-made dough. Lynne had loved both the ricotta-asparagus ravioli with walnut-cream sauce and the gnocchi with porcini at previous visits. I chose agnolotti stuffed with portobellos in a light tomato sauce. I got first taste in our round-robin rotation. It was lukewarm on delivery and lukewarm in flavor. The pasta was too thick, even a bit gummy, the filling bland. Mulligan: I’d do one of Lynne’s recommends, or the paccheri with pistachio pesto and speck (a hammier northern version of prosciutto but made differently, from a different part of the pig) in cream sauce instead. Or maybe the fettucine with sausage and shiitake ragu.
The pizzas are pretty good, about halfway between ultra-thin Roman style (Via Italia in Encinitas has the exemplary version) and thicker but bendable New York Neapolitan style. (For that, Pizzeria Luigi in Golden Hill is the champ, even better than Bronx Pizza.) We chose Pizza con Salsiccia, with a perhaps too-skimpy topping of mozzarella, bites of house-made sausage (not much, and I’d prefer slices so I can taste it distinctly), onions, and mushrooms — all my favorite pizza stuff. It was okay, not riveting. All the garnishes seemed mushed together, so the ensemble lacked clarity and the joy of tasting individual elements.
My do-over might be the version with portobello mushrooms and speck with truffle oil, or maybe the one with buffalo mozzarella and prosciutto crudo. (“millerowski” likes it.) Lynne had tasted the quatro gusti version (mozzarella, ham, mushrooms, artichoke, salame, etc.) at a previous visit and was quite taken with it. My old friend Dave (another NY expat) had tried the calzone, loved the flavors, but had forgotten over years of exile how heavy and carb-packed calzone is. (It reminded him that we’re no longer slim carefree youngsters cruising and gobbling along Mulberry Street during the Festa di San Gennaro.)
None of us fell in love with our main courses. Pollo Toscano was described on the menu as “chicken grilled, marinated in olive oil, garlic, crushed red pepper, and rosemary.” This evoked a happy vision of a zesty bone-in, skin-on roast chicken half (perhaps like Tuscany’s chicken cooked under a brick). Instead, an existential crisis of very white, sliced, skinless breast fillet arrived: nothingness, disappointment, sorrow.
Guazetto di Pesce sounded Sicilian and enticing: clams, mussels, calamari, and fresh fish with garlic, olives, and capers in a light tomato broth. When it arrived, we found octopus in there, too! But the mussels and clams alone survived the cooking. All other species were overcooked to rubber.
It’s worth noting in the restaurant’s defense that neither owner was present the week I ate there. Frank (aka Francesco) was in Italy for the funeral of a close relative, stuck due to snowed-in airports on the East Coast. I exploited a friend’s friendship with his mother and learned that he’s devoted to Antica (his very own restaurant) and spends little time at Origano. “Vinnie” was also stuck in Italy. Yeah, great, just in time for me to review the restaurant. From the problems with done-ness, etc., it sounds as if somebody needs to be minding the store, at least with the current cooking staff. Several friends who ate here a week or so earlier found the cooking better than what we experienced at our meal.
For dessert we shared an ethereal, unconventional tiramisu. It doesn’t have the bittersweet notes of thin-shaved bittersweet chocolate or instant espresso granules on top, nor a perceptible boozy underlay of rum (or other spirits) that the classic version offers — but it’s like eating a little white cloud. Could so much air possibly have any calories? I’ve gotten bored with most tiramisu mutants in San Diego — the horrors drizzled with chocolate syrup, layered with pound cake, etc. — but this was dreamy. The espresso was strong, possibly a tad too bitter, but good with a sweet. Service (everybody Italian and charming) was dandy.
Alas, this is no miniature of Antica; it’s miniature in size, but also in quality — particularly the quality of execution (that week, anyway), and the menu is not just shorter (especially in the antipasti) but less inspired. Perhaps some foods can’t be exported from their homelands without losing a lot in translation — even if their homelands are only eight miles away in La Mesa. ■
★★1/2 (Good to Very Good)
3650 5th Avenue, Hillcrest, 619-295-9590; osteriaorigano.com
HOURS: Seven days, 11:30 a.m.–10:00 p.m.
PRICES: Antipasti $6.50–$14; soups, salads, desserts $6–$7.50; pizzas $9.50–$14; pastas $14–$18; mains $16–$20.
CUISINE & BEVERAGES: Italian cuisine of many regions, with slight emphasis on Sicily. Wine list mainly Californian and affordable, with awesome reserve list (e.g., 2000 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet) at prices that are high, but less predatory than most restaurants.
PICK HITS: Napoleone di Mozzarella; Burrata Golosa; Tortino Granchio (crab “cake”); pizza; tiramisu. Likely good bets: Fritto Misto; stuffed mushrooms; ravioli; gnocchi; Cosciotto D’Agnello Brasato (lamb shanks).
NEED TO KNOW: Free parking in garage, but when calling to reserve, ask for precise location. (Do reserve; small room.) Open kitchen, hence noisy. Outdoor front patio with heat lamps. Charming Italian service; nice-casual garb. Great grazing on antipasti and pizza. Loads for lacto-vegetarians, vegans mainly outta luck.