"Oh no," said one of my experienced dining companions upon viewing the menu of Fullerton's Aurora Ristorante, "not another one of those restaurants." And it looked as if he was right: Aurora has one of those menus that looks as if it belongs in another age: salads mixed table-side; pastas smothered in bacon, mushrooms and cream; veal dishes more eternal than Rome. "Does anybody eat this kind of food anymore?" my companion asked.
They do, but who can blame them? And Aurora not only does the classics proud, it features an arkful of eccentricities from a daily chalkboard, such things as buffalo, alligator and wild game birds. Chef and owner Leo Holczer has a style that is both energetic and versatile (even if he is a bit ham handed with butter and cream), and there's something reassuring about the restaurant's anachronistic philosophy. It's one of those places that is almost exactly as you imagine, in spite of an occasional alligator or two.
The main salle, for starters, is a pink-walled, dimly lit affair filled with leather booths and tuxedoed waiters who seem constantly in each others' way. Guests are handsomely attired. Of course there is music. You half expect to hear a harp, and what you get isn't far from it.
On a recent Saturday evening we had the curious experience of hearing not one, but two different keyboard players . . . at the same time. The dining room features an organist on weekends, and this particular night there was piano music filtering through from an adjacent banquet room. The pianist, who favored Chopin and ballet, could be heard faintly, while the organist played late romantic tear-jerkers so schmaltzy that you could have spread them on a Ritz cracker.
But these small imperfections are easy to overlook once the food starts to arrive. An appetizer of steamed clams came in a modest ceramic bowl, but there was little modesty in the broth, rich with chopped garlic and a green dusting of minced herbs. Calamari fritti di casa , served abalone style--pounded flat and lightly breaded, then pan fried--was far more appealing than those little rings many restaurants are content to toss into a deep fryer and forget about.
Salads were sublime, especially the hot wilted spinach and a perfectly dressed Caesar. Unfortunately, you have to undergo the annoyance of cart service, complete with a team of waiters who pour oil from unnecessarily high places. I realize that there are people who enjoy this sort of thing, but these silly little tricks slow service; while the waiters at Aurora are pleasant, they're not exactly speedy.
Actually, the service at Aurora is somewhat like a large truck: slow to get started, and dangerous at high speeds. We were seated for more than 10 minutes before a waiter even came over to greet us, and when he finally did, instead of saying hello, offering us a drink, or handing over the wine list, he pulled out a little pad and asked if we were ready to order. "No, we're not," we said. "We'd like to look at the wine list first." He then disappeared for at least 10 minutes.
Saturdays are always hectic for waiters, but no matter how busy he may be, a waiter should take a few seconds to say hello to a new table. It's nice to know that your waiter is aware of you. When ours woke up long enough to bring the wine, he practically emptied the whole bottle into our glasses. Then, anxious to make another sale, he returned at five-minute intervals to ask if we were ready for another. This was so annoying that we didn't cheer up until the food arrived.
Aurora offers a variety of fresh pastas. It also offers the opportunity to order in half portions, so inveterate tasters can have several different dishes for a modest price. You have a choice of homemade linguine, gnocchi, angel hair and the like, prepared in traditional styles. No walnut sauce or curried goat cheese here.
These are rich sauces, brimming with such ingredients as bacon, tomato and butter. The homemade ravioli are fluffy pillows with a terrific ricotta filling, but our choice of Romano sauce--an unctuous mixture of ham, cheese, mushrooms and cream--proved unwise; after a dish like that, you feel like leaning back and having somebody fan you with peacock feathers.
Main courses strain to be interesting but are the least exciting items on the menu. Alligator "Baton Rouge" was toothsome and tender, but in its highly spiced sauce it could have passed for virtually anything . . . although no, it doesn't taste like chicken. Partridge a l'Alsacienne, which came nested atop a competent choucroute , was rubbery and flavorless, completely disappointing. Better stick to fresh fish, pepper steak (mercifully flamed in the kitchen, not at the table as advertised), or to one of those veal recipes. By the way, at Aurora, there is the opportunity to have Buffalo mozzarella as an appetizer, followed by--you guessed it--buffalo steak.
Prices are moderately expensive at Aurora, but nothing really feels out of line. Expect to pay $2.95 to $5.95 for salads and soups, $5.95 to $9.75 for appetizers and $8.50 to $15.95 for pastas. Main courses start at $16.95 and, depending on how exotic Holczer wants to be, they may run as high as $23.95. The wine list is full of bargains, particularly with regard to vintage Italian wine, and there is a radically priced list of rare cognacs that are worth every penny.
AURORA RISTORANTE 1341 S. Euclid St., Fullerton.
Open for lunch, Monday through Friday. For dinner Monday through Saturday. American Express, Master Card, and Visa.