The question of where to dine when in Bonsall has been at least partly solved by the opening of Sazio, a full-service Italian restaurant in the new River Village shopping complex.
Sazio constitutes something of an about-face for this rustic community, since the restaurant's mood reaches for the urban and its menu is reasonably sophisticated. Like River Village, the restaurant has a look both antique and contemporary, which seems a reflection of the fact that styles from calmer eras are enjoying a revival.
Naples-born brothers Michele and Mario Artiglio operate Sazio with their brother-in-law, Bob Boots; chef Michele Artiglio has a considerable resume of cooking stints at Los Angeles and Orange County eateries. His menu consists primarily of a good, long list of familiar dishes, fleshed out with several less frequently encountered offerings, among them the spaghetti Caruso, dressed with a sauce that includes chicken livers.
The starter list does not overreach itself, and for some reason makes much of the deep-fried baby squid, always a pleasant dish when done well and here tasty but a little oily. The kitchen sent both a lemon and an excellent, very light and fresh-tasting marinara sauce on the side.
There is also the inevitable mozzarella in carrozza , or "mozzarella in a carriage," interpreted at Sazio in the lazy American way as deep-fried sticks of cheese; in Naples, the cheese is sandwiched between slices of bread and then fried, a practice that gave rise to the "in a carriage" appellation. Other choices include a typical antipasto plate, shrimp sauteed with anisette liqueur and other seasonings, and Genoa-style clams steamed in a broth that includes tomato, white wine and garlic.
The cooking styles of Calabria, the province to the South of Naples on the Western coast of Italy, turn up several times on this menu. The first appearance is with the insalata calabrese , a salad of fresh tomatoes and sliced onions seasoned with oregano and basil and, on request (which would be taken for granted in Calabria), anchovies.
The fish of the day also are often prepared alla calabrese , as was a recently sampled piece of swordfish; the technique calls for the fish to be basted with an herb-and-garlic-infused oil as it grills. The flavor was pronounced, but pleasant and by no means overwhelming; the fish itself was well cooked, but would have been nicer had it been cut into a thicker steak.
Among the pastas, it almost goes without saying that there is something called fettuccine Alfredo, although, since it is made with a white sauce rather than tossed with butter and cheese, the name is misused.
More interesting choices include Artiglio's own recipe for tortellini, which include prosciutto, pancetta (belly bacon), mushrooms and peas; the crespelle , or crepes stuffed with ricotta, spinach and tomato and baked under a covering of white sauce; the bucatini tossed with prosciutto, eggs and two cheeses, and the spaghetti Caruso, which studs the restaurant's tasty marinara sauce with plump, savory chicken livers. This was a delicious dish, and the pasta itself was perfectly cooked and ever so slightly resistant to the tooth. It is supposed to be this way--the pasta is the true star of the dish, after all--but too often is not.
The entree list offers a largely familiar recitation of chicken and veal dishes in the Marsala, lemon sauce and Parmigiana treatments. The veal San Michele sounds interesting and different, and is finished with eggplant, garlic, peas and white sauce. The bracciole , or rolled, stuffed slices of flank steak, had a less savory finish than this dish requires; paradoxically, the rolls seemed to have been made with better quality meat than is the norm. Besides the fish of the day, Sazio offers the fish stew called cioppino , shrimp sauteed with green onions and mushrooms and salmone alla Montanara , or salmon flavored with garlic, mustard and Cognac.
The nearly ubiquitous custard cake called tiramisu is made on the premises and is a good-enough version, if not brilliant, but the delicate, crisp canolli are preferable and include pine nuts in the filling, a subtle additive virtually never encountered hereabouts.
5256 S. Mission Rd. (at the intersection with California 76), Bonsall
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily.
Cost: Entrees $7.50 to $16.95. Dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $30 to $60.