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An Easy-Going Italian Eatery in the Country

June 18, 1992|DAVID NELSON | David Nelson regularly reviews restaurants for The Times in San Diego. His column also appears in Calendar on Fridays.

Transplants from New Jersey and other points East may remember the neighborhood Italian eateries at which the proceedings ran pretty much on a first-name basis.

There was nothing dressy or fancy about such places, a comment that fairly describes Roncone's Country Villa, an easy-going restaurant on the still-rural backside of Carlsbad. During the course of a recent visit--lubricated first to last by generous lashings of marinara sauce--the clientele and staff freely chatted back and forth, to the point that some sort of informal reunion seemed under way. The camaraderie came at the expense of the service, which took an exceedingly cheerful and friendly tone through the evening but was excruciatingly slow at times.

The country setting seems something less than a natural for this kind of restaurant, although Italian houses are popping up everywhere. The look of the place, along a rustic stretch of El Camino Real, falls somewhat between country-cute and weather-beaten. Old-time bric-a-brac on the walls conveys a certain time and place (the lace tablecloths, protected against drips by sheets or clear plastic, noticeably marry old-fashioned graciousness with modern practicality), but the appearance of the entrance is so shabby that some first-timers may think twice about entering.

Chef-proprietor Joe Roncone has put a personal touch on his menu of familiar Italian items by adding several house creations, as well as dishes more typical of home cooking than restaurant fare. Notable among the latter is an appetizer, which could easily double as a vegetable side dish with the entrees, that has been given the no-nonsense name of "greens and beans." The dish contains escarole, sauteed to a soft, spinach-like consistency; a light touch of garlic; soft, meaty white beans and enough marinara sauce to smooth the concoction into a supple, formidable-looking mass. The appearance is rather messy and uninviting, but one bite leads to another until--if two or more guests are sharing the brimming casserole--the dish suddenly has been scraped clean.

Roncone's creations primarily vary typical Southern Italian/Sicilian combinations. The appetizer of eggplant Michelle (a goodly number of dishes borrow the names of Roncone family members), has much in common with eggplant parmigiana but includes a stuffing of ricotta cheese between the fried, breaded eggplant layers. Pasta Giuseppi (which we may suppose Roncone christened for himself) takes advantage of the home cooking combinations of pasta tossed with sauteed artichokes, broccoli or anchovies by adding all three, along with a few olives for extra flavor.

In eight out of 10 cases, the chicken breast treatments can be transferred to veal scallops for a $1 surcharge. After sampling one of each, the chicken seems the better choice; first flattened like veal and then floured and gilded in hot butter or oil, the fowl is quite wonderfully tender, while the veal verged on a dry, hard texture.

The chicken carcioffi , finished with a typical wine-butter sauce made in the saute pan, has a light, lemony flavor and an attractive garnish of sliced artichoke hearts. Veal Francesca, one of Roncone's originals, includes an unusual and pleasantly flavorful sprinkling of sesame seeds along with sauteed mushrooms and a sweet, rather thick pan sauce based on a Marsala-type fortified wine. Other styles applicable to both meats are the saltimbocca (which Roncone serves over escarole); alla Teresa, or sprinkled with capers and pine nuts; alla francese ("French-style"), dipped in egg batter and dressed with lemon butter, and cacciatore and parmigiana treatments. Meals include the choice of a vegetable or a side of spaghetti, generously served with a marinara sauce of no great distinction, as well as the usual soup-salad alternative, in which the vegetable-laden minestrone seems an easy favorite over the dull plate of greens.

The menu also extends to lasagna, manicotti, macaroni tossed with white beans and spaghetti with a variety of sauces, from the garlic and oil of home cookery to clam sauce and a garlicky broccoli treatment. Roncone also offers an Italian surf 'n turf that pairs a char-broiled rib-eye with shrimp in garlic butter; marinated, char-broiled swordfish; shrimp cacciatore, and sauteed orange roughy in a lemon-flavored sauce.

Roncone's Country Villa

4901 El Camino Real, Carlsbad. Calls: 434-7009.

Hours: Breakfast, lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday; Sunday brunch, closed Mondays.

Cost: Pastas and entrees, $5.95 to $14.95; dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $20 to $50.

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