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DAVID NELSON/ON RESTAURANTS

Scalini Still Serves Up Serious Italian Dining

December 19, 1991|DAVID NELSON | David Nelson regularly reviews restaurants for The Times in San Diego. His column also appears in Calendar on Fridays.

Scalini, one of the handful of restaurants that in the mid-1980s ignited San Diego County's continuing "Italian revolution" (whose basil-scented carts traversed the byways of North County well before they hit the streets of the big city), remains a pleasant place that turns out reliable and frequently elegant fare.

A relatively remote outpost when it opened, Scalini's location on the stretch of Via de la Valle that joins Del Mar and Rancho Santa Fe gradually has lost its rustic edges as a great deal of housing and a few new commercial developments have filled out the region. The mood is moderately dressy, the decor substantially so, especially during the holiday season, which has brought a small forest of poinsettias and several impressive Christmas trees into the bar and dining areas. The waiters, among the last in the county to still wear tuxedos, wear them well, and it is a delight to hear perfectly articulated Italian syllables roll off the tongues of the several who actually were born in the Old Country.

From a serious diner's point of view, the most important decor element would be the traditional antipasto table. These tables, standard in Italy, were virtually unknown south of Los Angeles until Scalini and a couple of other North County establishments introduced them. Priced at a not inconsiderable $7, a plate composed from the offerings of this table heads the menu; if you like the Italian version of hors d'oeuvres varies , it is worth the price.

Standard items include assorted grilled-and-marinated peppers, yellow squash, eggplant (topped with breathy slices of raw garlic) and zucchini decorated with sheets of musky-sharp Parmesan. These are all done well--the grill imparts a slightly smoky flavor--but better yet is the fagioli tonnato , or white beans in a mild sauce of crushed tuna brightened by slivered red onion. Daredevils may be interested in the marinated anchovies, but otherwise, the salami with Provolone fingers and the caprese sandwiches of sliced tomato with basil and mozzarella should suit.

There are many other openers, including shrimp with Cognac, mustard and cream; sauteed calamari in spicy tomato sauce; mushrooms stuffed with herbed veal mousse, and the brodetto de cozze , or steamed mussels with tomato, garlic and herbs.

Meals open with a complimentary snack of pizza bread, flat, erupted in brown blisters from the heat of the wood oven and flavored deliciously with fresh basil and garlic. This lagniappe suggests ordering an actual pizza, of which there are several, from a vegetarian version to the Moskovskaya , which Boris Yeltsin might like. The very thin, very Italian dough for this Russian-inspired pie is dotted with cream cheese, smoked salmon and caviar.

Among soups, the minestrone comes off lighter and more delicate than most versions. It utterly avoids beans and pasta, which purists generally agree are requisite to minestrone, but nicely fleshes out the fine broth with slices and cubes of carrot, zucchini, chard and potatoes.

Unusual choices among the pastas include the malfatti di magro (literally "poorly shaped fast-day pasta"), or ricotta- and spinach-filled pasta pockets in a Mascarpone cheese sauce; farfalle zarina , which flames butterfly-shaped macaroni in vodka, then adds smoked salmon, caviar and cream sauce, and the rigatoni alla siciliana , which stars eggplant and a supporting cast of tomato, garlic and eggplant. One night's special of ravioli, filled with lamb mousse and sauced with a light tomato, basil and garlic combination, was ravishing; the decidedly different flavorings in the savory meat stuffing turned out to be fennel, which is very Italian, and cumin seed, which is not at all--the final effect was slightly Indian and quite delicious.

The long list of grills and specialties includes many veal dishes; a grilled, herbed Cornish hen; grilled scallops in a rough, grain mustard sauce; beef filet in porcini mushroom sauce; a cioppino of fish and shellfish in tomatoed broth, and the filetto di sogliola all' Antonio, or crab-stuffed sole with a dilled Champagne sauce. There are usually a few specials; among these recently was a pollo alla cacciatore that had been stripped of its rural roots and was presented as butter-tender boned chicken breasts topped with a light tomato sauce and a great deal of savory, sauteed red and green bell pepper strips. Chicken gets short shrift at many restaurants, but this was a fine dish.

The dessert tray tends to rich offerings, including a white chocolate mousse cake, a very French creme brulee, and the espresso-flavored tiramisu . These are good, but a lighter, fruit-based alternative would be welcome.

Scalini

3790 Via de la Valle, Del Mar

Calls: 259-9944

Hours: Dinner served nightly

Cost: Pastas and entrees $11.95 to $22.95; dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, $40 to $80.

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