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Osteria Romantica, on Avenida del Playa in La Jolla, could be straight out of a movie set, from it's pretty patio and checkered tablecloths to it's handsome, accented waiters and sunny, cheerful dining room. It's a lovely place for a date, an anniversary or a birthday, but it still has a comfortable neighborhood feel.

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Osteria Romatica is one of the several local Italian eateries co-owned by Antonio Mastellone, of Arrivederci Ristorante, Buon Appetito and Sogno di Vino. His partner at OR is Fabio Speziali, who used to wait tables at Arrivederci.

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It's early Sunday afternoon, pretty near to the end of lunch service, so I check "Are you still serving lunch?" at the front door. Yes, yes, no problem, come in. Due to the odd hour, we have the place nearly to ourselves.

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It's so relaxing to sit and enjoy our wine, prosecco for me, pinot noir for John, and listen to the music. I don't understand the words, but I'm certain they are singing about the moon and June and other sweet things. The wine list has some interesting selections, Italian of course, but also Argentine, Chilean, South African, American, Israeli, with several available by the glass ($5-$10/glass).

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Along with the wine, we receive a loaf of warm bread and a bowl of spicy tomato sauce. The bread is fresh and yeasty, with plenty of big holes to grab the tomato chunks. The sauce is made with high quality canned tomatoes, I believe they use Alta Cucina brand, and it has a surprisingly strong kick. There's a small whole tomato at the bottom, no matter, we just cut it up and eat it too. I'm a firm believer in using good canned tomatoes over fresh in sauce, unless it's late summer and your tomatoes are dead ripe.

Osteria Romantica has a regular lunch menu and daily specials. I toy with the idea of spaghetti and meatballs, a good barometer for any Italian restaurant, but decide instead on Pappardelle with Braised Lamb ($16.95). "Ah!" our waiter says, "It's the best thing on the menu."

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It's a very good dish. The lamb has been slowly braised with aromatics and wine, then shredded. It's been added to three kinds of mushrooms, white, shiitake and portobello, olives, and rosemary, and finished with brandy and a touch of cream. The rich brown sauce is stirred into the pasta, in traditional Italian style, rather than sitting on top of it, the better to soak into the nicely al dente pappardelle. There's lots of meat in it, tender and succulent, I barely make it through a third of the bowl before I have to stop. I want to order dessert, too, and I have to save room.

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John's Gnocchi Gratinati ($12.95) has tender pillows of pasta in a lush parmesan cream sauce. It's been finished briefly in a hot oven to barely caramelize the top. The gnocchi are excellent, soft and yielding, but with an every so slightly toothy center. I taste, then taste again and again, in spite of my happiness with my own dish. Actually, we're both eating out of each other bowls quite unabashedly.

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We shared the Pear Tart ($6.95) for dessert. I couldn't actually pinpoint any pear, but it could have been masked by the chocolate sauce on top. I would order it without the sauce next time, it certainly doesn't need the embellishment. The buttery, rich pastry crust and lovely frangipane center would be nice with a bit of whipped cream or a small scoop of gelato.

The only thing that Osteria Romantica is lacking is a nice sofa for me to take my post-lunch nap on. But then, they'd never get rid of me.

Osteria Romantica

2151 Avenida de la Playa

La Jolla, CA 92037

858-551-1221

Hours:

Lunch daily - 11:30 am - 2:30 pm

Dinner - 5:00 pm - 10:00 pm weekdays 5:00 pm - 11:00 pm weekends

Children's menu available.

Free street parking.

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4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
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