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Casual Atmosphere Prevails at Both : 2 Restaurants Serve Up Fare Pleasantly Italian

Rome conquered the world 2,000 years ago and managed to keep it in its grasp for about three centuries.

But whatever Rome later lost on the map it has regained in the kitchen. In fact, 1987 has been the year of the Italian restaurant in San Diego. The city that once enshrined surf and turf upon its culinary altar has replaced it with pastas, clever salads and beautifully fresh seafoods prepared with a minimum of fuss. Where those San Diegans who hoped to acquire a reputation for savoir faire formerly flocked to French restaurants, the cognoscenti now dash to the newest purveyor of peninsular provender.

It’s not clear why, but the reason may lie in the inherent lightness and freshness of Italian food, qualities sought out, if not always achieved, by the nouvelle and California cuisines.

Be this as it may, in 1987 we consistently have found ourselves faced with the Italian restaurant of the week, or as things stand at this moment, two Italian restaurants of the week. One, the Reel Inn, putatively specializes in seafood but does so with a strong Latin accent; the second, Pizza California, offers stylishly modern versions of its namesake dish as well as several decidedly chic salads and pastas. Neither is formal or expensive, and both are worth a visit when a casual but pleasant meal is in order.

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Higher Standard

The Reel Inn, given its location on Harbor Drive between Shelter and Harbor islands, stands to benefit as much from the tourist as the local trade. However, it nonetheless offers a higher standard of cooking than is generally found in this transient strip.

Certain contradictions in style indicate a desire on the part of management to be hip and in . For example, the lighting has almost a coffee shop brightness, but the highly polished wooden tables are set with crisp white linens. And the servers’ uniforms consist of jeans and blue shirts, a sloppy combo that belies the servers’ competency and concern. (This uniform has appeared lately at several eateries that evidently desire to be young and of the moment, but one has to wonder if it isn’t primarily a sign of laziness on the part of management. When all decorum vanishes, the stage is set for chaos.)

But decor and decorum aside, it must be said that real talent resides in the kitchen, which sends out disciplined, thoughtfully prepared dishes that one feels obliged to consume with pleasure.

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The starter list begins with white clam chowder, a lightly creamy and nicely briny concoction, and continues with the fresh shellfish of the day (lately Malpeque oysters on the half shell, and a choice of steamed mussels, cockles or clams served in their own broth) and fried squid.

Small Squid Gently Fried

The small squid are simply rolled in flour and gently fried in the Italian tradition; what made this plate special, and indicated the presence of interested parties in the kitchen, were the accompanying sauces. Normally, one only wants lemon with fried squid, but the Reel Inn served a moderately spicy tomato sauce of some interest, as well as a second cup of what appeared to be tartar sauce, but on closer examination proved to be a delightful, lemony mayonnaise spiked with snippets of fresh basil. There was no choice but to be impressed by this simple but clever offering, which did quite well by the squid.

A selection of pastas includes both appetizer- and entree-sized dishes, among them an unusual lasagna laid with pesto (garlic-basil-nut sauce) and cheeses, a dish of fettuccine with clams and white sauce, and another fettuccine dish, this time mixed rather interestingly with cream, shrimp and prosciutto. The idea of mingling shrimp and ham is by no means unknown, and this unsampled dish sounds like a winner.

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The salads similarly can serve as appetizers or entrees; for example, the simple Caesar, noisily enjoyed by a neighboring table, would stand by itself as a starter course, but it also can be had fleshed out with a mesquite-broiled chicken breast. An unusual and commendable salad that can be split by two diners is the combination of spinach, sauteed onion, feta cheese and tiny calamata olives. Dressed with a hot olive oil-and-vinegar mixture, it has an appealing flavor and a rather tender texture--the greenery wilts from the heat--but it would have been better had the spinach been stemmed. A rabbit might find something commendable about a spinach stem, but humans find them less agreeable.

The entree list includes boneless chicken pan fried with rosemary and garlic ( very Italian); slowly roasted beef brisket; mesquite broiled baby back ribs, and the day’s selection of fresh fish. This recently included mahi mahi and local yellowtail and swordfish, all grilled over mesquite.

Rare in the Center

The swordfish was quite nice, with the caveat that it was rare in the center, a currently fashionable state of affairs that nonetheless should have been mentioned in advance; many diners continue to be rigid in their attitude toward fish, as is their right. Skewered and grilled Mexican shrimp were served plentifully and were flavorful if plain. Unsampled but intriguing was the “reel seafood soup,” a combination of squid, shrimp and mussels cooked in a broth touched with cream and tomato.

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Macaroni (penne , to be precise) in a light, garlic-flavored tomato sauce garnished the entrees (the alternative was french fried potatoes), and a family-style platter of beautifully sauteed broccoli and baby beets and turnips was brought for the table. Beets and turnips would not be so rare on our tables if they always tasted this good.

Portions at the Reel Inn are such that the homemade desserts may seem too much of a good thing. Nonetheless, the creamy rice pudding, sprinkled with chopped nuts, is well worth trying.

Pizza California lodges on a primarily residential block along a busy stretch of Ingraham Street in Pacific Beach, and its modest appointments make it seem primarily a neighborhood eatery.

However, the menu is ambitious and cosmopolitan, and the quality of the cooking lives up to it, making this casual cafe an especially nice place for an informal lunch.

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Pizza naturally is the star, but it is pizza with a modern flair; these are not the kind of pies that can be delivered to your doorstep within 10 minutes of placing a telephone order.

The first choice guests must make concerns the crust, which can be made of either whole wheat or semolina dough (the semolina dough was sampled and enjoyed). The topping choices begin with the familiar tomato sauce with cheese and pepperoni, but quickly shift into higher gear with such combos as eggplant with red pepper sauce, spinach and smoked mozzarella; a cheese-less pizza garnished with extra virgin olive oil, garlic, scallions, jalapenos, mushrooms, tomatoes and broccoli, and a wild combination of lamb sausage, grape leaves, olives, feta cheese, sage and red onion.

Middle Course Taken

Sorting all these out was a challenge, and ultimately a middle course was chosen, a pizza topped with five cheeses (smoked mozzarella, Cheddar, Monterey Jack, Parmesan and blue), basil, and fresh and sun-dried tomatoes. This was a rich, utterly satisfying pizza, and it could easily have fed two, which given its $5.50 price tag made it seem quite a bargain.

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The menu also lists several calzones (stuffed pizzas), as well as cleverly garnished salads and several pastas. Among these last, the angel hair pasta in fresh tomato sauce with pancetta , or Italian bacon, was quite nice. The desserts also seemed quite a bit more sophisticated than the surroundings, especially a smooth lemon tart embedded in an excellent crust.

REEL INN

5120 N. Harbor Island Drive, San Diego

226-0268

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Credit cards accepted

Dinner for two, including a glass of house wine each, tax and tip, $30 to $50.

PIZZA CALIFORNIA

3780 Ingraham St., San Diego

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274-2408

Credit cards accepted

A meal for two, including a glass of house wine each, tax and tip, $15 to $25.


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