I took my kids out to dinner with my older son's friend, James, who was totally awed that anyone could be lucky enough to eat for a living. Petrucci's, in Camarillo, proved to be the perfect restaurant for illustrating the rewards of restaurant reviewing. It was fancy, it was fun and the food was splendid. We had no sooner sat down than James began to audition for my job.
Open a year ago on New Year's Eve, Petrucci's has established a loyal following. The mood of the restaurant was clearly set by the delighted diners. The room is festive, warm and intimate. Wine racks have been used as architectural elements to divide the space into cozy components, while big stately mirrors give things an expansive feeling. A vaulted ceiling is painted deep royal blue. Around the tops of the walls hang dozens of brightly colored medieval Italian flags. The effect is somewhat like having a moonlit banquet on the ramparts of a Tuscan Renaissance castle.
Our waiter could have come from central casting. He danced attendance on our table and recited the specials as if he were auditioning for Broadway. He poured wine like a contortionist and wielded the three-foot pepper grinder like a Marine on parade. As he approached our table, he had a tendency to burst into song. James pronounced him "a bit suave, a bit cocky and entirely charming."
The menu at Petrucci's (despite numerous misspellings of Italian words) included many Northern Italian standards, along with some non-Italian classics such as a prize-winning New England-style clam chowder that was simply wonderful. A fresh spinach salad ($4.50) was also marvelous. Its hot, sweet bacon dressing with a subtle citrus flavor was poured over layers of fresh spinach, mushrooms, melted mozzarella and sliced hard-boiled eggs. "It may be a cheap thrill," said James, "because it's sweet. But I've never had better."
We also sampled a rustic, subtle mushroom soup and a decent Caesar salad that could have used a few anchovies. For a mozzarella caprese appetizer, they had procured a fine fresh mozzarella with surprisingly good tomatoes for this time of year and a great, fruity olive oil.
Be sure to consider the specials. We enjoyed a tasty home-cured salmon carpaccio, sliced considerably thicker than beef carpaccio--or even traditional gravlax--and served with a marvelous complement of onions, capers, peppercorns, cornichon, Greek olives and a homemade mayonnaise creme sauce.
Another special, filet Monte Carlo ($18.95) was thick, rare and divinely tender, with a rich cognac tarragon sauce full of mushrooms. Osso buco consisted pleasingly of a pair of large veal shanks, cooked in a hearty tomato sauce until they were as tender as pudding.
The salmon special, with a broiled crisp coating of garlic and herbs, was a bit overcooked; but the beans and carrots that came with it were delicious. If a restaurant is truly only as good as its vegetables, then Petrucci's could be one of the finest. A house special, spiedino vegetali ($9.95), consisted of broiled seasonal vegetables: onions, zucchini, tomato and thin slices of eggplant, with enough garlic to make them quite spicy and fabulous.
An old standby, vitello al limone (or piccata) was far from mundane, with rounds of warm lemon slices interspersed with tasty, moist medallions of savory veal. Gnocchi al pesto ($9.95) were a delightful version of this Italian comfort food: sweet little chewy pillows, coated with zesty green basil sauce. "I get the feeling this gnocchi is tasting me," James remarked.
James also ordered the "Mama Mia," an extravagant seafood dish, a cross between paella and cioppino. It had a soupy, flavorful tomato base and came with linguine piled with excellent clams, tender squid, chicken morsels, large mussels, shrimp, pieces of sausage and white fish. "It's so good, I love it," raved James. "It's a satiny, loose grease fire in my mouth." He would have gone on, but the waiter appeared just then and tied a bib firmly around his neck.
Along with fine cappuccinos, Petrucci's offered rich and unusual desserts. Scoops of Italian gelato came in raspberry, white chocolate or amaretto flavors. Covered with crisp chocolate coatings, they were like large frozen truffles. A double chocolate cake, moist, not too dense, had cream cheese frosting and slivered almonds.
Finally, a weird gluey bread pudding came engulfed in a warm, startling sweet caramel sauce. James described it as a dessert for someone who has just had a disastrous automobile accident. I hope James gets into medical school and forgets restaurant reviewing. I love my job.
* WHERE AND WHEN
Petrucci's, 2502 Ventura Blvd., Camarillo, (805) 482-1022. Lunch, Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Dinner, Monday-Thursday, 6-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday 5-10 p.m. Full bar, Mastercard, Visa, American Express. Dinner for two, food only, $30-$60.