In the old days, when a French restaurateur encountered public indifference to his establishment, he muttered a sad "sacre bleu," and retired to his wine cellar.
In 1990, it seems that, when the going gets tough, tough Frenchmen go Italian.
Thus it happened that Carlsbad's former Le Marengo, which opened just two years ago as a purveyor of fascinating, hyper-contemporary French cuisine, recently transformed itself into Marengo-That's Italian, with the slogan "Casual Italian Dining" added as a coda to its new name.
About the only thing more popular than Italian dining at present is casual Italian dining, and Marengo-That's Italian has the bases quite well covered with a menu--mostly priced under $9--that concentrates on salads, pasta, pizza and the creamy rice stews called risotti .
Some of the food is pretty tasty--and let's be clear right now that some of it is pretty mediocre--but it is Italian as only a Frenchman could cook it. Dishes may have names like risotto cacciatore and gnocchi siciliana , but just as the Mona Lisa might have had a few cherubs in the background if a Frenchman had painted it, these dishes have more in common with the tastes of Paris than of Palermo. The chicken that tops the "cacciatore" rice has been marinated in orange and lime juices and Chardonnay, and basted with a homemade barbecue sauce seasoned with Indian spices, and the herb-studded gnocchi dumplings are doused with a tomato sauce that incorporates not only such Italian ingredients as bacon and pine nuts, but shallots and cilantro.
Some of the dishes benefit from this trans-national touch. The garlic bread, offered as an appetizer but good through the meal, is dressed with what the French call snail butter (parsley, shallots, garlic and butter) and is terrific. The San Remo salad tumbles together chopped spinach, lettuce, cabbage, apples and dried figs with mandarin oranges and cucumbers and moistens the whole with a mustardy, raspberry vinegar dressing. And the rotini Bolognese, here a decidedly French interpretation of the most classic of macaroni dishes, is a happily light concoction of freshly sauteed chopped beef, onions and tomato spooned over wheel-shaped pasta. The dusting of Parmesan cheese applied in the kitchen seems almost a grudging acknowledgement of the Italian origins of this dish.
There is a starter dubbed " panzaretto di Bologna" that could double as a light entree were its flaky pastry crust more generously stuffed with ground beef, onions, carrots, celery, cheese and herbs; a recently sampled portion skimped on the filling. The salads, if ordered in full rather than half-portions, definitely will double as entrees, and the happiest choice in this category would be the pizzaiola , a chopped salad of freshly sauteed chicken breast mixed with bacon, ham, Gorgonzola cheese, lettuce, avocado, hard boiled egg and fine brown olives. The meatless paisano salad also has its points, and combines cucumbers, tomatoes, artichokes and peppers with feta cheese and a tangy dressing of mint, olive oil, garlic and lemon.
The lengthy pasta list begins promisingly with the simplest of dishes, angel hair pasta tossed with a quickly cooked sauce of tomatoes, basil, garlic and olive oil. The primavera tops linguine with assorted vegetables and sun-dried tomatoes; the angel hair with purported ratatouille bogs down in a soggy mess of squashes, peppers, tomato and herbs; the spinach angel hair with scampi is nice in its basic garlic butter, and the "chicken tequila linguine" goes out on a limb by dressing the basic pasta with chicken breast, sauteed peppers and a sauce of cilantro, tequila, lime and jalapenos.
The pizza selection is no less unusual, the tomato sauce--for those pies that use it--French rather than Italian, and the toppings running to such ingredients as Peking-style duck, barbecued chicken and a Thai-inspired medley of shrimp, chicken, beans sprouts and spicy cashew-ginger-sesame oil dressing. The oddball entry, albeit one that will appeal to some tastes and that does have its merits, tops the basic thin, crisp crust with curried yogurt and chunks of spiced, seared chicken breast. It's different.
The restaurant has changed its name, but it retains its funhouse-style decor. The dining room walls, all angled, are mirrored from floor to ceiling, so that the space seems populated by an antic crowd even when just a few tables are occupied. An Italian identification has been attempted by the suspension from the ceiling of hams, cheeses and garlic ropes, which when repeated in the mirrors only add to the visual confusion. This is definitely a one-of-a-kind place, as much for the decor as for the cooking.
3050 Pio Pico, Carlsbad
Lunch and dinner daily
Credit cards accepted
A meal for two, with a glass of wine each, tax and tip, $25 to $45.