Osteria Romantica stays true to its Italian roots

The term “osteria” referred to a gathering place in small towns and cities where cultured and ordinary Italians would congregate. They played cards, shared a carafe of wine, or just engaged in lively conversation in these osterias.

La Jollans know Osteria Romantica very well. It’s the name of a delightful Italian restaurant on the corner of Avenida de la Playa. The friendly Italian eatery is the perfect spot for a lunch or dinner that takes you back to the Italian osterias of old.

The cuisine is exceptional, taking authentic Italian recipes and giving them a healthy contemporary twist. The interior of the restaurant harks back to the old country as well, with its checkered tablecloths and bottles of wine lining the walls. For cozy alfresco dining, try the sidewalk patio at Osteria Romantica. The tables are set up for people-watching as well as informal dining.

You’ll always find a wide assortment of daily specials at Osteria Romantica. In fact, the restaurant prints out a special menu listing the specials, because there are just too many of them for a server to rattle off.

During a recent lunch at the restaurant, we counted three appetizer specials, 10 entree additions, wine specials and four luscious home-made desserts.

The menu also offered a pre fixe menu for $10.95, which featured a seasonal salad with home-made dressing, grilled filet of salmon or chicken breast, and a side of spaghetti with marinara sauce.

The special salad was a heavenly beet salad with arugula, walnuts and goat cheese in a red wine reduction dressing ($6.95). It was a wonderful mix of flavors and textures that got our lunch off to an excellent start. The same salad was also available on the special dinner menu ($7.95).

Among the outstanding entrees on the dinner menu for the evening were gnocchi ($13.95). This delicious home-made potato dumpling was paired with arugula and dry ricotta and topped with a pink sauce. What a treat. The restaurant also offers gnocchi gratinati ($12.95) on the regular menu. This potato dumpling dish is made with parmesan cream sauce au gratin. Order it for lunch for $10.50.

If you love pasta - and who doesn’t - you’ll find just about every version of this Italian classic on the menu, both for lunch and dinner. Some lunch pastas of note included farfalle salmone and vodka ($12.50), linguine sfiziose, which is a dish that mixes linguine with calamari, capers, and olives, then tops them off with tomato sauce ($11.50), penne Vittorio made with penne pasta, sausage, bell peppers, mushrooms and spicy tomato sauce ($10.95), and fettuccine Ubriache, a fettuccine creation with mushrooms, chicken, peas and brandy sauce ($10.95).

Lasagna changes daily. During our visit, the chef was offering home-made lasagna with chicken or beef. One ravioli preparation was stuffed with ricotta cheese and spinach, and another was packed with salmon in a cream and leek sauce and topped with caviar. That dish was $12.95 on the lunch menu and $13.95 for dinner.

There are many outstanding entrees on the menu using veal, chicken, seafood, beef and pork. Among the recent specials available both for lunch and dinner were pork osso buco with mushroom in a port wine sauce ($17.95) and typical veal shank osso buco ($19.95).

The regular dinner menu features an assortment that includes lamb chops marinated in olive oil, rosemary and garlic ($19.95), sea scallops in light white wine and garlic sauce ($16.50), chicken breast sauteed with balsamic vinegar sauce and bell peppers ($14.50), filet mignon with gorgonzola cheese and sun-dried tomatoes ($19.95), veal chop stuffed with fontina cheese and proscuitto in mushroom sauce ($19.95), and halibut sauteed in tomato sauce with mussels and clams ($16.50).

The salads are terrific, and you’ll always find at least one new one on the Daily Specials menu. We shared a beet salad for lunch recently ($6.95) and it was delicious with arugula, walnuts and goat cheese to add texture and color. The dressing was a red wine reduction that really complemented the flavors.

If you love tiramisu, Osteria Romantica has your number. Their authentic recipe for this Italian classic is melt-in-your-mouth good. The chef prepares other home-made desserts as well, including a fabulous strawberry Napoleon that was feather-light, a ricotta cheesecake and cannoli. All the desserts are $6, and in the evening the chef adds even more choices, such as the pear tart and chocolate mousse we saw on the dinner specials menu.

Osteria Romantica is open every day for lunch and dinner, and kids are welcome to order from the children’s menu. Service is friendly and efficient. The restaurant makes everything to go, and it does a great job on its catering menu. Try this casual but sophisticated eatery soon - buon appetito.

Osteria Romantica is at 2151 Avenida de la Playa. Call (858) 551-1221.