Rumor has it that before opening his own restaurant, Michael de Paola ate at one of Montecito's hottest Italian places every night for weeks. I thought this sounded like a good idea on paper (or on plate), but possibly hard to pull off. I began to believe the story, though, when I noticed how my friends' faces lit up every time they mentioned Emilio's.
Maybe Emilio's did copy the Montecito restaurant by presenting a simple menu: a few appetizers, several salads, a little pasta, some chicken and fish, and a daily risotto. But the food is hardly an imitation--it has a flavor all its own, characterized by restraint in the use of garlic and salt and a definite affinity for sweet herbs. It's wonderful food, highly imaginative and very pleasing.
Facing the Santa Barbara harbor, the charming Tuscan-yellow building is dwarfed by oversized stucco motels on either side. Inside, it is handsome, managing a curiously successful combination of marble-topped tables and molded plastic chairs--class with comfort. The low ceiling affects the sound level, creating a corridor of intimacy around each table. Although it's an elegant restaurant, children are at ease here too.
Dinner began with rustic Italian bread, set on the table with small bowls of olive oil instead of butter; if you like, you can ask for oil mildly flavored with garlic and rosemary. A prosciutto and melon appetizer came with two kinds of melon, each shaved as thin as the superb prosciutto. Sausage and polenta made an equally delicious appetizer, a perfect combination of spicy and sweet, chewy and soft.
The Caesar salad was mild-mannered, the lettuce tossed with crisp croutons and heavily coated with excellent Parmesan cheese. Spinach and radicchio salad, with whispers of basil and fennel, contained marinated mushrooms and eggplant, all tossed in a warm dressing that mellowed the greens.
At $5.95, the salads add significantly to the price of dinner, but the entrees are fairly reasonable. Pastas are under $10. A lamb risotto, at $10.95, came with perfect little medallions of rare lamb, fried ravioli and caponata -topped toast.
I've also had a risotto dish with savory chunks of duck sausage, small slices of baby asparagus, sweet peppers, pine nuts and tiny little chunks of bleu cheese. It might sound overwrought, but it was utterly flavorful.
In fact, I've liked everything I've tasted at Emilio's. The pizza had a light, light chewy crust and an intensely flavored topping of herbed sausage, sweet peppers, olives, roasted fennel and marvelous cheese; it was superb. Vegetarian lasagna, with its sweet ricotta filling, alternated layers of pasta with eggplant and grilled vegetables.
The spinach tortellini were as good as the ones I bought in an open-air market in Rome. They came in a light cream sauce, topped with thin strips of chewy ham and pistachio nuts.
Desserts at Emilio's proved as rewarding as the rest of the food. Cappuccino ice cream consisted of fresh-cranked vanilla ice cream and chopped espresso beans. The tiramisu looked like marbleized paper and came in a sauce that was the essence of raspberry, chocolate and coffee.
And while the lemon cheesecake may have gone overboard with its butterscotch caramel sauce, no one complained.
If I did have a complaint about this restaurant, it was that the staff is too efficient at clearing the plates.
They were so quick we found that we practically had to sit on the plates to finish every last morsel. This took something away from the pleasure of savoring the meal. And if ever a meal deserved to be savored, this was it.
* WHERE AND WHEN
Emilio's, 324 W. Cabrillo Blvd., Santa Barbara, 966-4426. Dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. daily. Wine and beer. Street parking. MasterCard and Visa. Dinner for two, food only, $40 to $55.