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In Italy, osterias are gathering places for people in small towns and city suburbs to enjoy local comfort food in a neighborly atmosphere. In La Jolla, restauranteurs Fabio Speziali and Antonio Mastellone aim to recreate that atmosphere at Osteria Romantica.
The La Jolla Shores eatery offers plenty of traditional Italian dishes along with Italian-American favorites in a comfortable setting.
“We want this to be a place for everybody — young and old, rich and poor,” Speziali said. “Not too fancy, but still nice and romantic with very good food.”
Osteria Romantica has a bright, open and airy feel. Much of the walls around dining areas consist of glass-and-wood-framed doors which serve as giant windows and are often swung open to allow in ocean breezes from La Jolla Shores Beach nearby.
Alfresco dining is also available in a patio and along the sidewalk for a European vibe.
Walls are adorned with black-and-white photos, decorative plates, cooking utensils and garden-watering pots to create a rustic feel for guests seated around tables covered with green-checkered tablecloth.
The menu features “tour of Italy” selections since co-owners Speziali hails from Lake Como in northern Italy, and Mastellone grew up in southern Italy’s Naples area.
“Foodwise, we try to have a little of everything; the most popular dishes from different regions,” Speziali said.
In offering homestyle cooking using some of their family recipes, Speziali said the kitchen staff makes minimal food preparation in advance.
“We try to do everything on the spot,” he said. “There is nothing ready except for those items that have to be premade. Everything is fresh made — that gives it a different taste and makes a difference.”
Osteria Romantica also makes its own egg pastas, such as gnocchi, lasagna and ravioli.
Ravioli is stuffed with choices of ricotta cheese, portobello mushroom, salmon or lobster. Seasonal ravioli includes pumpkin filling with sage butter. For a gourmet twist on ravioli, Speziali suggests the Mezzelune Allaragista: Half-moon shaped ravioli filled with lobster in a saffron sauce.
For starters, Speziali recommends Calamari Fritti, deep-fried calamari and zucchini served with warm marinara sauce, or Artichokes with stem sauteed with garlic and parsley in olive oil.
One of the gourmet salads big enough to share, or enjoy as a meal, is the Insalata D’Anatra with smoked duck breast placed over warm spinach with pine nuts, raisins and a balsamic vinaigrette.
Traditional gnocchi can be served as an appetizer or main course. Gnocchi Gratinati has the homemade potato dumplings smothered with a parmesan cream sauce and finished in the broiler for a light crust. Gnocchi Puttanesca is served as an entree with capers and olives in a tomato sauce alongside an arugala and bay shrimp salad.
“There is something for everyone — familiar or very authentic dishes,” Speziali said. He especially recommends dishes such as Pappardelle (pasta with braised lamb, mix mushrooms, olives and rosemary in a brandy sauce); Strozzapreti (pasta with sausage, porcini mushroom in marinara with a touch of cream); and Pork Ossobuco (braised pork shank).
Those with a love of seafood should try Grigliata Di Pesce (mixed, grilled fish marinated in olive oil, lemon and pepper), or Salmone Ripieno (salmon filet stuffed with crab, bay shrimp and scallop with a curry sauce).
Authentic-style dishes featuring rabbit, squid-ink pasta, and a variety of seafood are also highlights on the specials menu.
As an essential part of Italian culture, Osteria Romantica offers plenty of wines from Italy and other countries, along with specialty liqueur, and Italian after-dinner drinks. Most of the wines are priced in the $25-$50 range “so people can try something different each time,” said Speziali.
Every Tuesday is Wine Night with half- price bottles of wine (not valid for large groups and maximum of two bottles per table). “It’s very popular and draws a lot of locals and regulars,” Speziali said.
For dessert, meals can be rounded out with daily-made Strawberry or Neapolitan Tiramisu.
“This has become a place for locals — and tourists, too — but we have so many regulars it’s become more of a friendship than just business — I like that,” he said.
— Osteria Romantica, 2151 Avenida de la Playa, La Jolla
• Phone: (858) 551-1221
• Website: www.osteriaromantica.com
• The Vibe: Casual, comfortable, rustic, romantic
• Signature Dishes: Ravioli, duck salad, fried calamari, gnocchi, grilled fish
• Open since: 2004
• Reservations: Yes
• Patio Seating: Yes
• Take Out: Yes
• Happy Hour: Half-price bottles of wine Tuesdays
• Lunch: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. weekdays
• Dinner: 5-10 p.m. weekdays; 5-11 p.m. weekends
• On The Menu RECIPE: Each week, you'll find a recipe from the featured restaurant online at lajollalight.com. This week: Osteria Romantica's Espresso Martini
3/4 ounce Kahlua
3/4 Absolut Raspberry Vodka
3/4 ounce Baileys
Shot of espresso
3 espresso beans
— Method: Combine liquid ingredients and ice into a shaker. Pour into a martini glass. Add a touch of foam. Top with espresso beans.
Recipe courtesy of Osteria Romantica