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Stylish Fare Stands Out at Vessia's

Southern Italian dishes and Mama's desserts make a delicious combination.

November 05, 1998|Restaurant Review MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Those who recall Franco Vessia from Prego won't be surprised to learn that he remains a most amiable host . . . and perennial fashion plate.

This time around, though, he's not just pushing the northern Italian dishes for which he's known. Vessia, as his handsomely appointed new restaurant is called, serves a number of rustic dishes from Puglia, the heel of Italy's boot. And the kitchen has expert help, Vessia's mother, Maria.

This is not to imply that this is a mom-and-pop operation. Vessia occupies a large space in an Irvine mall that once was a Louise's Trattoria, now swankily redone in subdued colors. The booths are upholstered in designer fabrics as eye-catching as Vessia's natty suits. Giant glass panels separate the dining area from the open kitchen, giving the room an air of late 20th century elegance.

The peasant-style dishes on Vessia's menu would draw attention at any restaurant, but in this modern dining room, their appeal is irresistible.

The American love affair with Italian cooking began with southern Italian dishes that have since become cliches: lasagna, spaghetti with meatballs and their kin. So when we encounter less familiar southern dishes such as braciole, arancini, gioielli and orecchiette alla Barese (all done quite well here), it takes willpower not to order all of them at once.

Things start impressively when the waiter brings a basket of crisp bread sticks (a distinctly northern Italian specialty, for what it's worth) and a pair of delicious dips--a pesto with pureed celery, and a paste of sun-dried tomatoes and minced anchovies.

From there, the best move is to dive right into the varied list of appetizers, breads, pizzas and soups. My favorite starter here is the Sicilian rice ball known as arancini, two to an order here. Inside the golden nutmeg-scented rice and its brown crust, you'll find an intensely flavored filling of ground beef and green peas.

Bruschetta alla paesana is thick pieces of toasted peasant bread smothered with chopped tomatoes, garlic and basil--pleasing, if difficult to eat. Another appetizer not to miss is affetati misti, a plate of thinly sliced prosciutto, salami and the cured air-dried beef called bresaola. These cold cuts are truly a cut above what you get in other local restaurants.

The pizzas, baked in a wood-burning oven, also deserve high marks. The best, without question, is panzerotto alla Barese, a specialty of Bari, the capital of Puglia. This big, unwieldy pizza turnover is a sort of calzone stuffed with green onions, anchovies, capers and mozzarella. Don't worry that the portion may be too small, because a literal translation of panzerotto would be belly-buster. Believe it.

My second choice is the classic sausage pizza (alla salciccia). What makes it good is a cracker-thin crust and a dry but adroitly spiced sausage made in Los Angeles by a Puglia-born sausage maker. (The long, thin sausage, known as serpentina in Italian, is also available as a main course.)

Mama Vessia is directly involved in a few of the homemade pastas, and it shows. Gioielli--literally, little jewels--are in fact large, chewy ravioli filled with ground veal and ricotta cheese. Next time, I plan to order them without the thick cream sauce that Vessia pours over them, because it only obscures the delicious pasta.

She also makes the ear-shaped pasta orecchiette, perhaps Puglia's best-known dish. It's nothing but the pasta tossed with sauteed broccoli rabe, garlic and oil: an ultra-simple dish, and the restaurant's best.

I wish I could say that other pastas I've tried were in the same class as the first two, but they weren't. Fusilli del bosco, a corkscrew-shaped pasta mixed with sausage, shiitake mushrooms, onions and a rich marinara sauce, had so much topping that I had to dig for the noodles.

The meat and fish courses here tend to be rich and filling. My favorite is braciole alla Barese--probably for nostalgic reasons, because I ate this dish at Sicilian and Calabrian restaurants back in Boston the whole time I was growing up. It's flank steak rolled around a stuffing, generally based on bread crumbs. Here, the light bread-crumb stuffing is seasoned with pecorino cheese, pancetta bacon, garlic and parsley. The roll is served under Mama's marinara sauce.

Osso buco is a dish from much farther north in Italy, but Vessia's kitchen produces a huge, beautifully braised veal shank, full of marrow, though the saffron risotto it comes with could be more moist and flavorful. My seafood risotto also was too dry.

I've also had a rather dry filet of sea bass here, though nicely topped with capers, olives and tomato sauce. Puglia may be on the Adriatic Sea, but somehow I don't think Vessia will make its reputation with seafood.

Desserts are best when they come from Mama. She makes the excellent cannoli--two to a plate, one filled with pastry cream, the other with a light pistachio and ricotta filling. She also bakes the good lemon cookies and nutty biscotti, which half make up for the forgettable tiramisu and the cloying pastry selection.

Every restaurant owner dreams of having a mother to help out in the kitchen. Vessia must be pinching himself to make sure he's really awake.

Vessia is moderate to expensive. Starters are $3.25 to $11.50. Main dishes are $11.75 to $18.50.


Vessia, 3966 Barranca Parkway, Suite B, Irvine. (949) 654-1155. 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Friday, 5-11 p.m. Saturday, 5-10 p.m. Sunday. All major cards.

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