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DAVID NELSON ON RESTAURANTS

Casual Atmosphere Prevails at Both : 2 Restaurants Serve Up Fare Pleasantly Italian

December 03, 1987|David Nelson

Rome conquered the world 2,000 years ago and managed to keep it in its grasp for about three centuries.

But whatever Rome later lost on the map it has regained in the kitchen. In fact, 1987 has been the year of the Italian restaurant in San Diego. The city that once enshrined surf and turf upon its culinary altar has replaced it with pastas, clever salads and beautifully fresh seafoods prepared with a minimum of fuss. Where those San Diegans who hoped to acquire a reputation for savoir faire formerly flocked to French restaurants, the cognoscenti now dash to the newest purveyor of peninsular provender.

It's not clear why, but the reason may lie in the inherent lightness and freshness of Italian food, qualities sought out, if not always achieved, by the nouvelle and California cuisines.

Be this as it may, in 1987 we consistently have found ourselves faced with the Italian restaurant of the week, or as things stand at this moment, two Italian restaurants of the week. One, the Reel Inn, putatively specializes in seafood but does so with a strong Latin accent; the second, Pizza California, offers stylishly modern versions of its namesake dish as well as several decidedly chic salads and pastas. Neither is formal or expensive, and both are worth a visit when a casual but pleasant meal is in order.

Higher Standard

The Reel Inn, given its location on Harbor Drive between Shelter and Harbor islands, stands to benefit as much from the tourist as the local trade. However, it nonetheless offers a higher standard of cooking than is generally found in this transient strip.

Certain contradictions in style indicate a desire on the part of management to be hip and in . For example, the lighting has almost a coffee shop brightness, but the highly polished wooden tables are set with crisp white linens. And the servers' uniforms consist of jeans and blue shirts, a sloppy combo that belies the servers' competency and concern. (This uniform has appeared lately at several eateries that evidently desire to be young and of the moment, but one has to wonder if it isn't primarily a sign of laziness on the part of management. When all decorum vanishes, the stage is set for chaos.)

But decor and decorum aside, it must be said that real talent resides in the kitchen, which sends out disciplined, thoughtfully prepared dishes that one feels obliged to consume with pleasure.

The starter list begins with white clam chowder, a lightly creamy and nicely briny concoction, and continues with the fresh shellfish of the day (lately Malpeque oysters on the half shell, and a choice of steamed mussels, cockles or clams served in their own broth) and fried squid.

Small Squid Gently Fried

The small squid are simply rolled in flour and gently fried in the Italian tradition; what made this plate special, and indicated the presence of interested parties in the kitchen, were the accompanying sauces. Normally, one only wants lemon with fried squid, but the Reel Inn served a moderately spicy tomato sauce of some interest, as well as a second cup of what appeared to be tartar sauce, but on closer examination proved to be a delightful, lemony mayonnaise spiked with snippets of fresh basil. There was no choice but to be impressed by this simple but clever offering, which did quite well by the squid.

A selection of pastas includes both appetizer- and entree-sized dishes, among them an unusual lasagna laid with pesto (garlic-basil-nut sauce) and cheeses, a dish of fettuccine with clams and white sauce, and another fettuccine dish, this time mixed rather interestingly with cream, shrimp and prosciutto. The idea of mingling shrimp and ham is by no means unknown, and this unsampled dish sounds like a winner.

The salads similarly can serve as appetizers or entrees; for example, the simple Caesar, noisily enjoyed by a neighboring table, would stand by itself as a starter course, but it also can be had fleshed out with a mesquite-broiled chicken breast. An unusual and commendable salad that can be split by two diners is the combination of spinach, sauteed onion, feta cheese and tiny calamata olives. Dressed with a hot olive oil-and-vinegar mixture, it has an appealing flavor and a rather tender texture--the greenery wilts from the heat--but it would have been better had the spinach been stemmed. A rabbit might find something commendable about a spinach stem, but humans find them less agreeable.

The entree list includes boneless chicken pan fried with rosemary and garlic ( very Italian); slowly roasted beef brisket; mesquite broiled baby back ribs, and the day's selection of fresh fish. This recently included mahi mahi and local yellowtail and swordfish, all grilled over mesquite.

Rare in the Center

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