Ristorante Antonello has always enjoyed a wonderful reputation, but for a long time I didn't really understand why. I do now.
I have visited this restaurant several times over the last three years after glowing recommendations from friends and colleagues. It has never made much of an impression.
But my recent visits have made a believer out of me. The cooking has been nearly perfect. The service has been gracious and smooth. And the bills appear to have gotten smaller, if that's possible.
On the surface, owner Antonio Cagnolo hasn't changed a thing. It's still the stagy, movie-set-meticulous mock-up of a street in Bistagna, Cagnolo's Italian hometown. It still does a booming business. And you still dine under the awnings of a life-size pensione, in a dining room strewn with fresh flowers, antique furniture and Old World charm.
It's not the room. Perhaps it has something to do with Cagnolo himself, a dashing figure in designer chic, now several sizes trimmer than the last time I spotted him. Perhaps it is the revamped wine list from new sommelier Steve Ebol, a list filled with muscular red wines from Tuscany and Piedmont that suit this food to a T. But no, that doesn't explain things either.
Point your finger squarely at the kitchen, where new executive chef Carlito Jocson and assistants Emanuele Daniele and Viviano Ricca are cooking up a fresher, lighter menu in collaboration with Cagnolo himself. This is food that you expect from a first-class Italian restaurant--light, fragrant fare that transports you to the Italian countryside. I didn't have a single dish I wouldn't order again.
The restaurant's cucina leggera menu, light Italian dishes created with ingredients low in sodium, cholesterol and fat, is perfect for lunchtime. You'll never notice that the richness is missing.
Insalata di manzo arrosto hits all the right notes. It consists of grilled slices of melt-in-the-mouth tenderloin, arranged on a salad of arugula and radicchio enlivened by a salsa verde. This is a dish with everything: a hint of bitterness, a touch of sweetness and elegant contrasts of texture.
Insalata di mare mista also approaches greatness. The dish consists of calamari, shrimp and sea bass tossed with peppers, romaine, frise and a full-flavored herb dressing.
Pastas are light at lunch, too, all of them homemade and served al dente. Penne con tonno is an intelligent choice--fresh tuna with green peas in a refreshing tomato sauce. Linguine con spinaci has its merits, too, a feather-light sauce with chopped spinach and ricotta cheese in an olive oil base.
Dinner is more of an occasion here. This is still one of the dressiest restaurants in Orange County, with both men and women decked out in their Milano fashion-set best. Many dishes are cooked table-side by a team of fussy servers in solemn-looking tuxedos, a showy technique that I find can be a detriment to good eating.
On these visits, however, the table-side cooking didn't seem to present a problem at all. "We don't actually cook anything," said our captain. "We just put the finishing touches on things so they will be served hot." Amen to that.
Start with a cold dish, though: a plateful from the irresistible antipasto cart. That cart is the real centerpiece of Antonello, laden with marinated calamari salad, tiny veal meatballs, delicately poached balls of mozzarella, roasted peppers, fresh whole anchovies (the large, silvery ones) and giant white beans from Tuscany.
The soups are good--minestrone and stracciatella (egg-drop soup, Italian style)--and likewise the hot appetizers: crisp fried calamari, wafer-thin carpaccio with a rich mustard and cognac sauce.
The pastas, all fresh-made, seem to have improved by leaps and bounds. I had a good linguine pescatore, noodles in a light cream sauce mingled with pieces of halibut, sea bass and salmon. There is an eccentric, tomato-less pasta puttanesca, with heady black olives, capers and a snuff box of minced anchovy. Even a rustically simple dish such as spaghettini alla Barese is exemplary, the thin noodles with broccoli and Parmesan properly chewy.
When it comes to main dishes, you can rest assured that Cagnolo uses excellent veal, superbly marbled beef and a good selection of fresh fish. Veal piccata is a little too refined, with a superfluous touch of cream added to the lemon sauce. If you don't like sauces, ask for swordfish paillard, which is sliced swordfish pounded thin and broiled.
The desserts are better than ever here, as well. I can't remember ever having a lighter, more delicato cheesecake than the one from Antonello's dessert cart--airy and lemony, topped with fresh raspberries. There are tiny chocolate-frosted cream puffs filled with zabaglione, densely stuffed cannoli, good homemade ice creams served with thick whipped cream. And cappuccino with foam so thick you could stand your spoon in it.
I guess my friends are saying "I told you so" right about now.
Antonello is expensive. Appetizers are $7 to 10. Pastas are $11 to $18. Entrees are $18 to $25.95. The cucina leggera menu, served lunch only, is $3.50 to $12.25.
3800 South Plaza Drive, South Coast Plaza Village, Santa Ana.
Open for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. through 2 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5:45 through 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday till 11 p.m. All major cards.