We always enjoy it when our readers write us to recommend a find or a favorite restaurant in their neighborhood. Often, these places are not on the radar because they don't represent destination dining, but they do offer tasty food at palatable prices.
Café Gazelle, an Italian restaurant in Huntington Beach, fits this description perfectly. The interior is quite attractive for a small casual restaurant in a strip mall with its high ceilings, marble floors and decorative arches. Handsome old aperitif posters line pale ochre-colored walls while white tablecloths and soft, low lighting creates a cozy, romantic atmosphere.
The traditional menu is quite extensive for a trattoria of this size. The food is fresh and flavorful, but the preparation and presentation are essentially home-style. Because the prices are so reasonable we were able to sample quite a few dishes.
We loved the calamaretti (baby calamari) sautéed with lots of garlic, herbs, butter and olive oil. They shined with a bright lemony flavor and a light, spicy bite. The seafood had a nice crunch but was not tough at all.
Another savory appetizer was the polpette (small meatballs) in this case, well seasoned ground chicken, redolent with rosemary that rested in a mellow, rich, sun dried tomato cream sauce.
The soup of the day was onion but it had an unusual peppery bite and a deep meaty flavored broth, which made it especially good.
For our pasta course, we chose a simple spaghettini aglio olio. The perfect al dente pasta was bathed in olive oil and kicked up with chopped garlic and crushed red peppers. Sometimes the simplest preparation can be the most enjoyable. However, there are 15 other pastas to choose from on the menu, ranging from the tried and true spaghetti and meatballs or fettucine Alfredo, to Michelangelo with fettuccine in Parmigiana cream with chicken, mushrooms, onions and cappicola. There is also whole-wheat pasta with mixed veggies, garlic and herbs.
There was a time when every Italian-American restaurant featured chicken cacciatore but it seems to have disappeared from many menus, so we were interested in trying this old standby. We were surprised to discover that Café Gazelle's version didn't resemble the classic of old. Rather than a stew made with a whole cut up chicken, this innovative version featured thick slices of moist chicken breast in a very fresh tasting tomato sauce replete with onions, carrots, mushrooms, zucchini, olives and peppers. It looked so ordinary on the plate but tasted so good.
Our least favorite dish was the trifolata, which was veal scallopine in a mushroom and brandy cream sauce with a hint of anchovy. We found the sauce to be just too rich and heavy for the delicate, tender veal.
All the entrées come with a choice of soup or salad. The salad is nothing special but the soup, as we mentioned, was excellent. If you don't order a pasta dish, you'll get it anyway. The rest of the main dishes are served with a side of house pasta in cream sauce.
There is a nice selection of Italian desserts to choose from including, cannoli, spumoni, gelato truffles and tiramisu.
We were very impressed with the house-made tiramisu. So often this dessert sits in a refrigerator for several days getting soggier and denser. Not so here. It was one of the best we've ever had. The coffee suffused cake was light and full of flavor and the creamy mascarpone filling was cloud-like and delicious. The final touch was shavings of rich dark chocolate instead of the usual dusting of cocoa powder.
On a budget? Have a yen for Italian food? Hanging out in Huntington Beach? Any of these is a good reason to stop by Café Gazelle.
ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Where: 16041 Bolsa Chica St., Huntington Beach
Contact: (714) 846-2694
When: Lunch: 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Friday; Dinner: 5 to 8:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, 5 to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Appetizers: $4.95 to $7.95
Entrées: $10.95 to $15.95
Glass: $6.95 to $7.95
Bottle: $20 to $92
Corkage Fee: $10