Since our last visit to the Italian restaurant Romeo Cucina, it has had a touch up and so has the menu.
The capacious room has a warm and inviting ambiance with its wood-burning oven as a focal point. The space is nicely lit and has an uncrowded feeling. A few booths have been added and the walls are painted a pleasant Etruscan red. There's a lively bar toward the rear and an eat-in-bar surrounding the glowing brick pizza oven. Diners may also enjoy eating on the small outdoor patio facing the street.
In its early days, Romeo had a bakery on site but even though it is long gone, they still serve an excellent Italian loaf, warm from the oven with a nice chewy crust and a tasty crumb, which they pair with one of the better olivadas around — briny, garlick-y and full of deep olive flavor.
New to us was a lovely seafood appetizer called tutto pesce. It was an unusual pairing of tuna "tartara" with good quality smoked salmon, capers and toast points. The inventive "tartara" combined rough-chopped tuna with lightly marinated rock shrimp in a very tasty lemon, olive oil dressing with just the right amount salt, enhancing all the flavors. Alfalfa sprouts provided the garnish.
Another nice appetizer is the mini-charcuterie plate called Toscano e Burrata with pecorino and burrata cheeses, bresaola and sopressata (preserved meats) plus cherry tomatoes, a sweet fig balsamic dressing and crostini.
Of course having a pizza is la cosa da fare (the thing to do). We wanted a simple one so we could analyze the various basic elements. We chose the funghi selvaggi that boasted oyster, shitake and wild mushrooms with mozzarella. We were dazzled by the perfect crust: thin, blistered, flavorful on its own and crispy all the way to the center. It was brushed with a very simple tomato sauce, as they do in Italy but then smothered with too much cheese in the American style. We never found any oyster or shitakes and the brown criminis that were there were not abundant. We also lament the passing of the fontina cheese that they used to add for complexity. Nevertheless, that crust made it all worthwhile.
The menu offers a choice of fresh, house-made (fresca) or dried (ancora) pasta. On request you may also get gluten-free or whole wheat. The fresh pastas include pappardelle (wide pasta) or tagliatelle (the name for fettuccine in Northern Italy). Among the other types of fresh pasta are, two kinds of ravioli, the artichoke and the caponata, as well as gnocchi, lasagnette and tortelloni stuffed with beef and pancetta. They will graciously interchange sauces with the pasta of your choice. We chose the fresh tagliatelle but paired it with Meridionali sauce. This is a rich, rustic tomato sauce, made zesty with piquant green olives and salty capers. The flavorful chewy pasta was perfectly al dente while chunks of very tasty swordfish and ahi completed this compelling combination.
Among the entrées is a very nice veal scallopine with porcini and artichokes, a gigantic 18-ounce porterhouse steak cooked in the wood-burning oven and a tasty cioppino.
We almost always go for any lemon dessert as it makes such a "seemingly light finish to a rich meal" but alas, the lemon flavored torta della nona was sold out. So, we opted instead for nostalgia and ordered the spumoni because our waiter said that theirs was special. In the old days, every American Italian restaurant only had two desserts, bisque tortoni (rich vanilla ice cream covered with crushed almonds) or spumoni, a layered ice cream in the three flavors, chocolate, pistachio and strawberry.
We didn't recognize the presentation, which was a round mound rather than a wedge; but as in the past, we yummed up the very good deep chocolate and the creamy, if a bit too mildly flavored, pistachio and eschewed the artificial tasting strawberry, which neither of us have ever liked.
When in the mood for Italian food, don't forget about this old Laguna favorite!
ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet foods and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Information: (949) 497-6627 romeocucina.com
Where: 240 Broadway, Laguna Beach
When: Dinner 5 p.m. until late Monday through Sunday. Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday
Appetizers: $8.95 to $11.95
Pasta and pizza: $8.50 to $13.95
Entrées: $16.50 to $18.95
Salads: $6.95 to $10.50
Desserts: $6.50 to $7.50 (dessert for two)
Bottles: $24 to $75
By the glass: $6.50 to $7.50
Corkage Fee: $15