There's a romantic story behind La Griglia, the cozy trattoria that opened recently in Anaheim Hills. Owner Gaetano Ianni literally met his wife, who is the restaurant's unofficial maitresse d', on the Love Boat. The young man from the southernmost city in Italy and the young Irishwoman fell in love while they were working for Princess Cruise Lines.
Today Ianni and his wife, Donna, are in dry dock at their new restaurant, a real charmer that has brought instant improvement to dining in the remote foothills near the Riverside County line.
The cooking here is Italian to the bone, but the decor is somehow French. The dining room is pink and pastel green, with a bay window and flowery curtains. Fresh orchids in Art Deco swan vases grace every table, and the white tablecloths and minimalist black designer chairs, standing on a gleaming white tile floor, look ever so simple in contrast. It's a casual, airy room and it suits the home-style food the restaurant serves.
A few feet behind the tables, chefs toil away in the open kitchen. Right in the middle of the space is a large metal spit where Ianni and the chefs roast rabbit, lamb and chicken. He is fond of fresh herbs, and the scents of thyme and rosemary permeate the air. You catch a whiff of them the minute you enter, and it becomes almost impossible to limit yourself to a meal of salad and pasta. It's one of the most irresistible sales techniques I can think of.
To the left of the kitchen is a large deli case where most of the antipasti are displayed. That's good technique, too, because it allows you to choose from what looks good to you. One antipasto you won't see is bruschetta, normally garlic-rubbed, grilled bread with olive oil, chopped tomatoes and fresh basil. As in most Italian restaurants around here, authenticity is skirted with this dish; the bread is oven toasted rather than grilled. But La Griglia serves a delicious version with the right combination of flavors dominated by sweet, fresh basil.
I wasn't as thrilled with antipasto misto , just some marinated vegetables with the usual combination of cold cuts and cheeses. They seemed a bit tired, as if they had been sitting already cut for a while. But there is an arresting starter called olive all'Ascolana . It's billed as a green olive stuffed with veal and cheese, but in reality the olive is the stuffing, with a breaded, crumbly mixture of the meat and cheese on the outside. It's a real pub dish, like what the English (or the Irish) call a Scotch egg, with a Kalamata olive playing the part of the egg. Maybe they should change the name to olive alla Scozzese, or Scotch olive.
There's an interesting mix of soups and salads here, too, should the antipasti seem too indulgent. Other than a lunchtime Caesar annoyingly made with iceberg lettuce instead of romaine, I liked them all, and found several quite innovative.
The minestrone alla contadina, for example, is done with peas, green beans and Swiss chard, all of which stand up nicely in hearty chicken broth. Pastina, those tiny semolina pearls that Italian mothers have been feeding their babies for centuries, are brightened by a beef broth flavored with fresh parsley and basil. The salads are good too, especially insalata caprese, which the restaurant makes with a tasty, finely textured mozzarella it buys from a Los Angeles cheese maker. Ask for his scamorza or smoked mozzarella, as well. Ianni brushes it with olive oil, a bit of pepper and some oregano. It's delightful.
The pastas here are rich and saucy, with the stamp of southern Italy on most of them. The filling penne alla rustica for one: tube-shaped pasta with fresh tomato, sausage, mushrooms, red wine and pancetta makes a complete dinner. There is a classic penne alla puttanesca dosed with Greek olives, lots of garlic and capers and a heady red sauce. Lasagna pecorara is a dense pie heavy with ricotta and cream, dotted gently with a touch of ground meat. Only vermicelli Calabrese, from Ianni's hometown of Reggio Calabria, approaches lightness. The thin spaghetti with broccoli, olive oil and red pepper make a palatable dish you could eat every day.
By now you know that it's a task to save room for the roasted meats, but since you are constantly reminded of them by their scents they will not slip your mind.
Chicken is the lightest of them, and probably also the best, served with lightly sauteed vegetables. It is rubbed with rosemary and comes out with a crisp skin.
I wasn't as happy with the lamb or pork, although both were basically sound. The lamb looked wonderful on the spit, with a brown crust I wanted to taste. But when the meat arrived, the crust had been cut off, and I couldn't detect the herbs. The pork seemed a bit tough and came blanketed in a thick, overpowering thyme sauce.
Avoid the gummy, storebought cheesecakes at dessert and head right into Donna Ianni's special tiramisu, served in a wine glass. Just when I think this dish is getting to be a cliche, someone comes up with a fresh version that I want to eat again and again. This is an impossibly rich tiramisu, layers of unadulterated mascarpone cheese punctuated with pungent espresso coffee and rum-soaked ladyfingers.
La Griglia is high end moderate. Antipasti are $3.50 to $5.50. Paste are $8.50 to $15.50. Meats are $14.75 to $19.50.
5636 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills.
Open for lunch Mondays through Fridays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; for dinner Mondays through Thursdays from 5 to 10 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays 5 to 11 p.m. Closed Sundays.
All major cards accepted.