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DAVID NELSON / ON RESTAURANTS

Siciliano's Is a Spot Where the Food Lives Up to a Challenge

June 20, 1991|DAVID NELSON

Sometimes a claim can be taken as a challenge.

An example would be the slogan at Siciliano's in Vista, which boldly announces at the top of the menu, "We serve the best veal and seafood in town."

It goes without saying that the only way to prove or disprove this claim, which several places might dispute, would be to sample the offerings at every Italian eatery in Vista. This wouldn't be a very daunting proposition, nor would it take all that long, but the easiest course is to simply address Siciliano's cooking and admit that, on the whole, it is rather good. The cooking becomes particularly notable when the low-key, casual nature of the place and the relatively moderate prices are factored in.

The feature that speaks loudest about the place is the antipasto table in the front dining room, a standard in Italy rarely enough encountered hereabouts. A selection from this handsome spread, composed by the waiter more or less according to his fancy (but with a generous hand, in any case), costs $6.95 and is enough to share. Since full-course meals include both salad and the day's soup, but pastas do not, an antipasto plate may serve best as a preliminary to a dish of spaghetti with oil and garlic, or fettuccine Alfredo, or one of the several other meat-less pastas. This excellent array of hors d'oeuvres recently included a refreshing salad of scallops and the tiniest of squid; the fresh tomato-mozzarella combination called caprese ; a pungent carrot salad in tomato sauce; a pile of delicious, gnarled, Sicilian black olives; roasted peppers; marinated eggplant; artichoke hearts; cold cuts and Provolone cheese.

The menu does offer several other appetizers--including the usual deep-fried zucchini sticks, mushrooms stuffed with crab, and shrimp in herbed garlic butter--but, since formal entrees do include both salad and soup, it is easy enough to dispense with the idea of a starter. The salad is simple enough, but pleasant. The soup, recently a beef-barley, had an unmistakeably homemade flavor and appearance, and if it might have been more agreeable with minced stew meat rather than crumbled ground beef, it also was full-bodied, warming and likable for the additions of peas, carrots, celery and tomatoes.

Siciliano's claim of serving the ne plus ultra among Vista seafood went largely unchallenged, although if the same tiny squid in the antipasto salad are used for the calamari fritti , this offering might be exceptional. The list also includes broiled sea bass, halibut, salmon and scallops, sole filet stuffed with crab and shrimp piccante , a saute finished with white wine, garlic butter and lemon.

The kitchen sent out a decidedly attractive order of veal Romano, one of the simplest--and tastiest--of Italian veal dishes, but one that appears rarely on area menus. The thin scaloppine were simply dipped in herbed beaten egg, fried quickly in hot butter to create a tender, almost omelet-like coating, and spritzed with a little lemon to bring up the flavor. Another home-style choice rarely offered by restaurants is the veal with peppers and onions, a robust dish that requires some care in getting the onions and peppers right, since they must be tender to be palatable (it is remarkable how many professional cooks fail in this simple requirement). There are also veal cordon bleu (finished with a Sherried mushroom sauce), Marsala, parmigiana and piccata .

Oddly enough, the menu ignores veal saltimbocca in favor of a version made with boned chicken breast halves. The preparation is a little different from the usual, but quite tasty; fresh sage leaves flavor a butter-thickened sauce that, texture-wise, verges on hollandaise. The flavor is light and likable. Chicken reappears both dressed with fresh mushrooms and braised in tomato in the cacciatore style. These and other entrees are lavishly garnished with a fresh vegetable or two and a dish of the pasta of the day, recently rotelli (corkscrew-shaped macaroni) in a hearty but unexceptional meat sauce.

The dessert list runs to such things as rum cake, strawberries in Port and homemade cannoli, as well as the now inescapable tiramisu , a pudding of liqueur-soaked cake, Mascarpone cheese, cocoa and other flavorings. Siciliano's makes an elaborate presentation by serving it atop a custard sauce that has been "painted" with red and green flower shapes squeezed carefully from the pastry cook's decorating bag.

SICILIANO'S

1233 E. Vista Way, Vista

Calls: 758-1720

Hours: Lunch and dinner daily

Cost: Pastas and entrees from $7.50 to $15.95. Dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $25 to $55.

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