The Review: Il Dolce in Costa Mesa

Behind the tall counter at Il Dolce, a new Costa Mesa pizzeria and restaurant, silver-haired owner Roberto Bigne stretches pizza dough over the backs of his hands in a sure, practiced gesture. The pizza oven behind him glows a fiery orange. Bags of almond wood are stacked on the floor in front of the counter; the 2-month-old restaurant is so small there's nowhere else to put them. Meanwhile, the smell of pizza dough cooking in that wood-fired oven wafts over the counter into the simple dining room with bare-topped tables lined up in rows.

A hungry lunch guest drums his fingers on the bare tabletop impatiently, although it's been all of five minutes since he's ordered. "Dude," his friend says, "think about it. This is artisanal pizza. Everything is made from scratch." Not everybody understands what that means. First the waiter has to take the order, then bring it to the kitchen, where the dough is stretched into a round by hand and the toppings assembled. It goes into the hot oven to bake. Even if your pizza is first in line, it cannot possibly be ready in five minutes. "Chill out," he admonishes his friend. This isn't Domino's or Pizza Hut.

Those who expect to have their food served up pronto are not the ideal customers for this Argentine-Italian hybrid, which moves at its own pace. If the service is sometimes confused in the heat of the moment, the food, and especially the pizzas, more than makes up for it.

A personal subject

I don't need to tell anybody that pizza is a subject of passionate debate. I just need to listen to my own phone messages. "Garbage!" declared one irate Italian American who had read about the pizza toppings at Mozza. And though the style here isn't as unconventional, the pizzas aren't completely standard, either.

Il Dolce's pizzas are unrepentantly Naples-style, with a thin crust, billowy at the edges and decidedly not crisp. Those who prefer their crust crunchy have taken to asking for their pizza extra-baked, which Bigne is happy to do.

The dough itself has a great yeasty flavor too, whichever way you order it. Toppings are sparse, the way they are in Italy, mostly gathered at the center of the pie, leaving a wide ribbon of unadorned dough at the edges.

Bigne also makes his own fior di latte, which is mozzarella made from cow's milk as opposed to bufala, or water buffalo's. Although it's an admirable idea, Il Dolce's mozzarella isn't quite there. It's a little ropy, and not as tender or milky as the imported variety, or even some of the very good locally made mozzarella. If he can't make one equally good, it seems his time might be put to better use.

The Margherita is lovely to look at, molten cheese speckled with tomato, garnished with a pretty basil leaf. The mozzarella gives up water in the cooking, so the bottom of the crust may be a bit limper than usual. I'm crazy about the patata, though, a pizza topped with mozzarella and Gruyère, and smashed fingerling potatoes seasoned with rosemary, pancetta and chives. A study in pales, this pie is no beauty queen, but it surely is delicious.

Another excellent choice is the prosciutto and arugula pizza, also the funghi made with sautéed wild mushrooms and caramelized onions on a thin blanket of mozzarella and Fontina. Sausage pizza is balanced and restrained, with fine-textured sausage sliced and laid on top.

At $11 to $16, the pizzas are large enough to share as a first course, or if there are four of you, order two or three different pies and shuffle the slices.

Il Dolce is a family affair, with Bigne working the kitchen and the pizza oven, his wife, Fernanda,producing the desserts. Before opening Il Dolce, the family had a bakery in Miami Beach. But then Bigne got the idea to open a pizzeria.

In his late 50s? It's a dream delayed. Hours are long, rewards minuscule. But this guy didn't fool around. He studied pizza in a serious way, obtaining a certificate from the Verace Pizza Napoletana Assn. and also worked for Wolfgang Puck, the chef who, along with Chez Panisse in Berkeley, brought gourmet pizza to California.

Il Dolce, though, is more than just a pizzeria. The restaurant also offers a large menu of appetizers, salads, pastas and main courses. Rustic Argentine empanadas filled with ground beef with olives and hard-boiled eggs come in a flaky crust with a rolled edge. A chicken-stuffed version has a clean, delicate flavor.

Salad and pasta

Salads have more character than most. Farro salad, for example, is mostly perfectly cooked whole grain mixed with chopped romaine lettuce, red onion, cucumbers, tomato and olives in a lively vinaigrette. A mixed green salad is bright with arugula and radicchio and garnished with pristine rings of calamari. Caprese salad is generous with the homemade mozzarella, but if he can't find better tomatoes than these pale, tasteless ones, he should wait for summer and ripe juicy tomatoes.

In Argentina, where so many families have an Italian heritage, pasta is a staple. And Bigne's bucatini all' Amatriciana can stand up to the best around. The pasta is cooked perfectly al dente and judiciously sauced in a fragrant, loose tomato sauce with a hint of onions and the irresistible sweet pork taste of pancetta. Spaghetti and meatballs passes muster too. But that's only a small sampling of the dozen pasta dishes on offer.

Main courses

The real trenchermen will continue on to the handful of secondi, or main courses, which include a very decent pollo alla Milanese (pounded chicken breast, breaded and fried), grilled skirt steak with chimichurri sauce or the modest bistecca alla Fiorentina -- not the 3-inch-thick T-bone of your desire, but fairly priced at $28.

The one weak point is the perfunctory wine list. You'd hope that eventually Bigne could hire some young wine geek to put together a list. But for now, if you care about wine, you'll probably want to bring your own and pay the $15 corkage fee.

For dessert, my pick is the crostata filled with sweetened ricotta cheese or the apple tart on a slightly tough puff pastry, with a cup of well-made espresso.

All in all, Il Dolce is a bright new spot for a casual meal with artisanal pizza, good pasta and salads. Every neighborhood deserves a place like this, and Costa Mesa just lucked into one.