Much of the best Italian cooking in the county is contained within a sort of Roman Triangle that extends east from Encinitas, where Portofino long has held sway, to the elegant plates at La Dolce Vita in Fairbanks Ranch and south to Carmel Valley Road, site of Villa D'Este, which may be the best of all. Notable stops within this territory include Il Fornaio and Scalini, both in Del Mar.
Villa D'Este combines a sort of Italianate country-folksy charm with fairly formal decor, and while these two stylistic ingredients would seem at odds, they mate to produce a comfortably elegant ambience.
The restaurant cooks a luxury menu, and, although it would be quite possible to order a plate of pasta and a glass of house wine and sneak out for less than $20 per person (inclusive of tax and tip), anyone who did so would miss the point of Villa D'Este.
Each of the many sections of the menu offers a more than respectable selection of dishes, beginning with the primi piatti, or first plates, heading, a category that includes a pairing of clams and mussels steamed in white wine, carpaccio, a couple of squid preparations and funghi trifolati , or "truffled" mushrooms. The term indicates a richness to the dish rather than the actual presence of truffles; the result is a savory saute flavored with garlic and parsley.
Depending on one's mood, a mixed antipasto plate composed from the display in the main dining room certainly would be the choicest starter. Some of the meat offerings, such as mortadella, the bresaola (air-dried beef, a delightful delicacy from the Italian Alps) and prosciutto paired with the inevitable melon, seem constant on the table. But other items change, and a plate recently included a savory salad of white beans, lightly marinated beets, freshly pickled miniature onions and excellent grilled-and-marinated zucchini and eggplant.
A recently offered special pasta of oversized, homemade rigatoni arrived tossed with fresh tomato sauce, a notable amount of garlic, smooth chunks of eggplant and, as the accent that brought it all together, torn basil leaves.
Eggplant, this time roasted, returns as a prime ingredient in the pollo mezzo ricetta , a double breast of chicken dressed with garlic and mushrooms; the kitchen made quite an elegant presentation of this dish. Another chicken offering, a grilled breast, employs sun dried tomatoes as a piquant accent. The veal offerings are typical, but there is some variety with the fish--the halibut livornese is finished with black olives, capers, garlic and fresh tomato--and among the meats are lamb chops in garlic-thyme sauce and, most untypical but welcome, pork filet with mushrooms and red wine sauce.
2282 Carmel Valley Road., San Diego
Hours: Lunch weekdays, dinner nightly.
Cost: Entrees from $10.95 to $21; dinner for two, including a glass of house wine each, tax and tip, about $35 to $75.