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Once a Stranger, Twice Family

November 08, 1990|JIM COLONNA

We're talking pasta. And veal. And steaks and seafood. Oh, yes, and atmosphere. Intimate, yet casual. Classy, yet reasonable. And yes, we are talking sauce--deep red, rich, garlic-laden sauce straight from the soul of Sicily. We're talking Ristorante Genovese, the oldest Italian restaurant in Orange, opened in 1957 when Tustin Avenue was still a dirt road.

Back then, it was called the Genovese Steak House. The Genovese family got out of the business in the mid-1970s and leased the building to several different operators, but five years ago, Al, the youngest of the three Genovese brothers, reopened the place with his wife, Marge, and sister Mary. Al's son Chris is the bartender; Al's daughter Jill is the lunchtime waitress who also works Friday and Saturday dinners.

The rest of the crew doesn't carry the Genovese name but is family just the same. So, for that matter, are the customers, who never seem to come for a single visit. There's a sign over the parking lot entrance: "You are only a stranger here once." It's true. Al and Marge seem to make friends with everybody. Then there are the waiters and waitresses--attentive, caring and efficient.

Two years ago, chef Michael Storrer, whose credentials include the Villa Nova in Newport Beach, came to Genovese and brought another dimension to the cooking--a variety of lighter fare such as frittata. The man also has a special flair with a fish.

Marge herself prepares the sauces daily, makes an incredible minestrone that can be a meal in itself, and makes (also daily) mouth-watering cannoli that are out of this world. It is difficult to recommend any single dish because it is impossible to find one that isn't excellent. But the pasta dishes--from spaghetti and lasagna to linguine and clams and fettuccine Alfredo--are the most popular. And the steak alla Sicilian, made with either T-bone or Porterhouse cuts, is extraordinary.

Then there is the pizza, served only at lunchtime. It, too, is made fresh daily, and you won't find yourself complaining that there's not enough cheese, or anything else, on it. The wine list is limited, but excellent and reasonable. A favorite is the Frescobaldi Chianti, as fine as you can find (and you can't find it at many restaurants).

Although the servings can be hefty, the prices will be anything but, ranging from $8.50 for cheese ravioli to $16.95 for steak and shrimp scampi. A couple can enjoy a meal with a good bottle of wine for less than $50. All dinners include a choice of salad or soup (do not pass up that minestrone) and excellent garlic bread--with the emphasis on garlic. The veal, chicken, beef and seafood dinners come with a vegetable and pasta.

Then there is the restaurant itself, a departure from the trendy bright strip-mall establishments that are overtaking Orange County. This one is a throwback. A whole building with a quaint exterior that looks more like a house than anything else, and a tasteful interior that you would expect from an Old-World Italian restaurant--18 tables and booths, soft romantic lighting, and comfortable seats as deep red as the sauce.

But no place is perfect. Ristorante Genovese is closed Sundays and Mondays.

Ristorante Genovese, 625 N. Tustin Ave., Orange. Open Tuesday through Friday for lunch, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; Tuesday through Saturday for dinner, 5-10 p.m. (714) 633-5654.

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