If any restaurant deserves to be called an Orange County institution, 23-year-old Antonello Ristorante does. It hasn't exactly done back flips to change with the times, but that's what I like about it.
I don't mean to suggest that it's a frumpy place of checkered tablecloths with Chianti bottles for candleholders. In fact, it's quite elegant, in a comfortable, old-fashioned way. With its Romanesque arches, high ceilings, chandeliers, white tablecloths and fresh-cut flowers, it's the kind of charming place that pulls up just short of kitsch, sort of like an Italian Five Crowns.
I wouldn't quite call the food retro, because there are some contemporary flourishes, but for the most part, the menu is quite traditional. It's also the traditional, obliging Italian restaurant that will gladly do it your way: Divide your party's selection of appetizers onto all the plates so that everybody gets to taste everything. Not a problem.
That's how I had three appetizers one night. The scampi oreganati were deliciously sauteed with garlic, capers, basil and oregano, but what really made them stand out was the fact that they were excellent plump shrimp, done justice by being cooked medium rare. Wild mushrooms (funghi trifolati), sauteed with garlic and white wine, were meaty in texture and robust in flavor, with nutty and smoky overtones.
I also had a special appetizer of ravioli a la vodka, made with fresh pasta, a firm and moist ricotta filling and a tomato cream sauce with just the right note of astringency.
Another night I sampled calamaretti in bianco, calamari in a white wine sauce spiked with basil and parsley. Nothing flashy about it, but the ringlets of squid were tender and the sauce demanded to be sopped up with bread.
In the salads, as with everything else, the ingredients are top shelf. The kitchen could unleash a few more anchovies in the Caesar, but the romaine lettuce is so fresh and crisp that drops of water spurt into your mouth with each bite. An ordinary-sounding pear and Gorgonzola salad comes in a spectacular, palate-cleansing raspberry vinaigrette with a sprinkling of walnuts. (The dressing on the more basic capricciosa salad is almost as good; I'm pretty sure I taste Champagne vinegar.)
I also liked the warm spinach salad (spinaci caldi) prepared at your table: It's spinach laced with chunks of bacon, doused in a brandy dressing, then flambeed for a sweet, savory result.
Needless to say, there's a wide range of pastas.
One practical-minded friend solved the problem of what to choose by ordering ravioletti di Mama Pina, figuring anything named after a restaurant owner's mother (it is her recipe, according to the menu) has to be a safe bet. It was a good call. The miniature ravioli are packed with veal and slathered in flavorful Bolognese sauce that shows hours of slow cooking.
On to the entrees.
Antonello obviously knows how to treat seafood, and the salmon with lobster sauce (salmone con salsa d'aragosta) is remarkable. The salmon is tender, moist and flaky, and the sauce, made from lobster stock, cream and shallots, is rich, savory and poised delicately between sweetness and acidity. Served on a creamy bed of pureed potatoes (moistened with olive oil instead of butter), it's a real delight.
I don't think as much of the sea bass (branzino) in a white wine broth. The fish itself is good, but there are far too many capers in the sauce.
Fetto di pollo al boschetto is basically chicken Marsala made with boneless chicken breast; unfortunately, the chicken breast comes out dry, as this cut nearly always is. But the Marsala sauce, bobbing with an assortment of mushrooms, is velvety and superb, retaining the full flavor of the wine.
The saltimbocca alla Romana is a variation on the theme of veal scaloppini topped with Parma prosciutto and sauced with a hearty white wine demi-glaze. This one uses a fine piece of veal, firm and juicy. The prosciutto is on the salty side, but otherwise this is a fine rendition.
The wine list deserves some mention. It ranges far and wide, in both selection and price, from decent wines at reasonable prices to some real eye-poppers for serious (and well-heeled) connoisseurs.
With the exception of the over-capered sea bass, there's very little on this menu that isn't first-rate.
So your evening is an agony of hard choices, and they don't stop when the dessert cart comes around.
At the end of the day, I've concluded, the best of the desserts is the berry tart, but that tiramisu is very tempting--supremely light, with just the right amount of tart mascarpone cheese. Tiramisu just doesn't come much better.
Antonello is expensive. Appetizers run $8.25-$13.50, pastas $14.50-$25.75 and entrees $22.50-$34.95. Full bar; reservations are a good idea on weekends.
Antonello Ristorante, South Coast Plaza Village, 1611 Sunflower Ave., Santa Ana. (714) 751-7153. Open 5:45 to 10 p.m. Monday-Saturday.