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RESTAURANTS/Max Jacobson : Sashay Down to This Seaside Eatery for Some Scintillating Sausage

When . . . the . . . moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie . . . then head right over to Sabatino’s on Capistrano Beach and make goo-goo eyes at your date over a plate of linguine and clams. Because at Sabatino’s, that’s amore.

Sabatino’s is a North Side Chicago import run by a man named Pete Sabatino. Sitting in his dining room, you might swear you were back there on the North Side were you not blissfully aware of the Pacific out of the corner of your eye.

The atmosphere is familiar: the greenish-tinted room has mirrored walls and windows lined with little reflecting bulbs. The music is familiar: lounge lizard piano music and piped-in favorites like “Al Di La,” “Be My Love” and “Mama.” And the food is certainly familiar, even though most of you probably haven’t tasted sausage like this since Sinatra left Jersey. It is authentic Italo-American cuisine, long on tradition and short on trend. If Rome is eternal, then most of this stuff runs a close second.

I dwell on the sausage for two reasons. One, because Sabatino’s father was a sausage maker, and two, because it is the best Italian sausage I have eaten in California. Sabatino has retained the family recipe and makes sausage every day in a small deli kitchen next to his restaurant. It has a fine grainy texture that is neither coarse, marbled with fat nor laced with unground seeds.

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A lengthy swirling coil of sausage is served sizzling on an iron plate, accompanied by roasted green peppers. The meat is seasoned with a fabulous blend of fennel, garlic, red pepper and other spices. I could swear I tasted sage, oregano and mystery spices in alternating bites. A noble sausage such as this is best eaten as it is served: without sauce.

Almost its equal is the Caesar salad, mixed table-side by the owner himself. It may just be the perfect Caesar. It bears a hefty price, and it is served only for two or more. Still, it is absolutely not to be missed. Perhaps its secret is in the jar of pickled garlic cloves that sits on the bottom shelf of the rickety salad cart. Or perhaps it is the way Sabatino lemons and peppers the chilled plates before dishing up the salad.

“In Chicago,” he says, “we don’t give you any choice. We know what’s good.” Whatever the secret, I’m grateful for it.

When you are seated, you will be greeted with small antipasto plates of tiny sliced meats and cheeses, so unless you want more of the same, skip the salami misti . Try prosciutto and melon instead. I suggest you pass on the garlicky, ordinary sauteed mushrooms and move right along to the pastas, the heart of any Italian menu.

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The menu heading reads “ Pasta Fresca (fresh homemade).” Just under this heading, “ capelli di Arrabbiata " and “ linguin e con vongole " are boxed in bold print. Just below that are nine more pasta selections. When I asked the waitress which pastas were fresh, she replied, “I’ll ask.” She never did answer, although I can tell you that the two above, as well as gnocchi and manicotti , are specifically labeled homemade, and that every pasta I tried was good.

The pasta Arrabbiata --fine noodles in a fiery tomato sauce with pancetta , prosciutto and lots of red pepper--is one of Sabatino’s more modern offerings and turns out to be as good a version as one has a right to expect. The linguine with clams is terrific. A rich, creamy fettucine primavera with broccoli, fresh tomato and onion would easily serve two.

Homemade gnocchi , the chewy potato dumplings, are too chewy but worth ordering for the house’s best sauce, pesto. This bright green pesto has a thick consistency, thanks to a generous use of pine nuts, Parmesan and fresh basil.

Unless you split an order of pasta, don’t expect to be in the mood for a main course. But if you are still game, there are the usual selections. Veal piccata , flavored with lemon, capers and Italian cooking wine is about the lightest. Veal parmigiana , a thick breaded veal slice with an even thicker sauce, is the heaviest.

The waitress tried to warn me away from chicken Vesuvio, saying that it was too dry. I didn’t take her warning and was rewarded with a fine simple dish--a plain, half-roasted chicken, crusted with garlic, oregano and herbs.

The only dish I would not order a second time is Pizza Sabatino. This turned out to be tasteless and doughy. Maybe the moon could hit your eye like a big plate of sausage--that really would be amore.

There is a small dessert selection featuring a gooey chocolate mousse cake and little lemon and orange ices served in the hollowed-out fruit. The latter tasted slightly of freezer burn. A medium-size selection of Italian wines is available, as is cappuccino.

Sabatino’s prices are high-end moderate. Antipastas are $1.85 to $9.95. Pastas are $6.95 to $10.50. Main dishes are $9.95 to $15.95, not including market prices for fresh fish selections when available. The sausage is also sold to go.

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SABATINO’S

34700 Coast Highway, Capistrano Beach

(714) 661-8998

Open for dinner only, from 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. weekends. MasterCard, Visa, American Express accepted.


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