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Osteria Romantica -- Italian romance in La Jolla

Have you visited an "osteria" in your neighborhood? You probably have, translated literally. The Italian word means "tavern, inn, restaurant or pub." But the exact translation doesn't do justice to the concept.

Historically, an osteria was usually located in the main square of a small town. It was casual, comfortable and served local delicacies. It was often filled with music, the babble of people talking, and lots of good food. The osteria was the place to go after a day's work, to eat, relax and spend time with the family. The word osteria has a much warmer connotation than the simple translation.

Now the word osteria is batted about, tagged to the names of many restaurants all over the world that are located in settings and operated in ways that do not really conform to the original meaning.

By contrast, Osteria Romantica, which opened recently in the La Jolla Shores area, re-creates that warm ambiance. The Shores area has one short main street with a few stores and restaurants. It has the look and feel of a town square. In this simple but wonderfully comfortable setting, Osteria Romantica generates good feelings as one dines on its good food.

Two wooden doors lead into the long interior. Tables are covered with checkered tablecloths, and old photos with Italian village themes decorate the walls. Along the far wall, a large wine rack houses many bottles and vintages. The restaurant has a good international list that includes Chilean, South African and even Israeli wines along with American and Italian choices.

The voices of Pavarotti and other famous singers emerge from the loudspeakers, filling the room softly with operatic melodies.

An outside patio provides seating for diners who wish to enjoy the sunny afternoons and cool La Jolla evenings. The setting is casual and welcoming, relaxing and romantic.

The restaurant was opened by Fabio Spezial and Antonio Mastelone. Spezial grew up in the Lake Como region of northern Italy. Mastelone, who also owns several other local restaurants, grew up in Naples.

"My partner is the executive chef," Spezial said, "and we are from different regions of our country. But we create together and offer dishes from all of Italy. We have our regular menu and daily specials. Our breads and pasta are always fresh and homemade."

Our appetizers arrived quickly. I ordered a plate of calamari, lightly battered and deep-fried. The sauce was an unusual and tasty pesto sauce. The portion was huge and contained both calamari and several vegetables, all coated and tasty.

Our other appetizer, a minestrone soup, was also unusual.

"This is a special soup, minestrone Genovese," Spezial said. It had no beans, but did have diced potato. The soup was a chicken stock, instead of a tomato base, with Parmesan cheese and pesto.

The spaghetti in red sauce came piping hot. We had it on the side, along with two veal dishes. Vitello, on the daily specials menu, was a veal scaloppini topped with fontina cheese in a white wine sauce. It came with grilled eggplant, thinly sliced and folded over.

The veal Milanese, on the regular menu, was also thinly sliced and fried, topped with cheese. The two types of veal were different, but both were good.

The menu offers a full range of Italian pastas, meat and fish dishes. Ossobucco, braised veal shank, is served on a bed of saffron rice. Pollo is a large chicken breast saut»ed in bell peppers and tomato and then topped with layers of mozzarella. Lasagna is a large serving of pasta in layers separated and filled with tasty chicken or beef.

The choices of dessert were inviting. Tiramisu and cannoli Siciliani competed with strawberry Napoleon and black forest cake for my attention.

Best of all, prices for this delicious cuisine, served in such an inviting setting, are reasonable. Most entrees are less than $20. Osteria Romantica is a terrific place to bring the family, to just unwind and enjoy good food.

Osteria Romantica is located at 2151 Avenida de la Playa, in La Jolla Shores. Call (858) 551-1221 for information and reservations.


Rottenberg is editor of Dining San Diego Magazine and member of the California Restaurant Writers Association.

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