Lorna's Patrons Wait in Line, but the Italian Dishes Are Worth It

An uncommon ritual takes place several nights a week in a corner of an otherwise unremarkable neighborhood shopping center in University City.

Starting about sundown, or whenever the 32 seats at Lorna's Italian Kitchen fill, people cluster near the door of this storefront restaurant and patiently wait for their names to be called. It's a friendly scene--most seem in good spirits, expecting to sit down shortly to a good dinner--but a surprising one in a city where waiting for a restaurant table is the exception. Except during tourist season at the beach, San Diegans, the beneficiaries of an overbuilt restaurant community, generally can stake out any table they like any night of the week.

The lines outside Lorna's maintain a fairly constant length through the evening, for the simple reason that the place offers a down-home selection of Italian specialties unlike that found in the city's other modest Italian houses. Food, in fact, is Lorna's only attraction, except for a rather warm ambiance created by a staff that seems to be having fun and a clientele that looks more than a tad pleased to be on the receiving end of the kitchen's generous impulses.

Patrons Come to Eat

About the first thing patrons notice when they finally gain admission to the tiny, brightly lit dining room is the amount of food on the tables. Extraordinary-looking pizzas, for example, are mounted on stands to make room for the plates of pasta, chicken or veal that most patrons down as chasers to these elaborate pies. The nouvelle niceties of small, delicate portions at pricier restaurants evidently have never been heard of here. Guests at Lorna's eat .

The cooking, generally, is Naples style, a statement that applies to most of the city's family-style Italian eateries. The difference at Lorna's is that there is more of it from which to choose. The menu includes the usual cannelloni, manicotti and pasta in marinara or meat sauce, but then skips merrily along to such listings as capellini pomidori (angel hair pasta in a lively fresh tomato sauce), and mostaccioli baked with layerings of eggplant and ricotta cheese. The pasta list even includes an everyday favorite shunned by most local Italian restaurants, linguine aglio ed olio . The simple recipe eaten frequently in millions of Italian homes calls for pasta tossed with garlic and olive oil, but Lorna's elaborates a bit by adding mushrooms and olives.

A blackboard lists the day's specials, which seem to be dressed-up versions of regular menu items. On one occasion, the capellini pomidori was transformed into a putatively more elegant creation by the addition of fresh mussels; however, since the kitchen overcooked the pasta, the dish had to be returned. A calzone , stuffed with minced veal, olives, spinach, tomatoes, capers, ricotta and mozzarella cheeses and deliciously seasoned with nutmeg, was quite another story. Shaped like a football but puffed to at least the size of a regulation basketball, this orb of stuffed pizza dough was intensely satisfying, and, despite its outlandish size, rather delicate. Lorna's was pleased to serve it to two guests as a shared appetizer, but be warned that it could easily have sufficed as the main course for two or even three reasonably hungry diners.

Exquisite Pizza

Lorna's chief glory is its pizza. These fat wheels of tender, puffy dough issue regularly from a revolving oven capable of handling at least a dozen at a time. The specials list occasionally suggests what it calls an "appetizer-sized" version, and, although these pies may be somewhat smaller, they are by no means modest. They are, however, exquisite, and the toppings list gives guests a chance to explore such fine combinations as sun-dried tomatoes and fresh basil leaves, both of which add a rich pungency to the molten mozzarella. As in Naples, a small pool of olive oil remains on the tray when the pizza has been dispatched, and it is this that accounts for the superb flavor of the crust.

To follow pizza with pasta seems to lavish too much devotion on the products of the flour bin, but a remarkable number of Lorna's guests do just that. A caution would be to know your own limits before taking this route, as pasta is an unlikely candidate for a doggy bag. The lighter choices, such as the pastas dressed in simple tomato sauces, seem the best bets. A plate of fettuccine mixed with cream sauce and roasted red bell peppers was less interesting than it sounds, while the same pasta in sauce bolognese was seasoned too insistently; the kitchen added garlic, oregano and sausage to the basic meat-tomato-cream sauce, which classically is flavored only with cloves and nutmeg and avoids garlic and herbs altogether.

The tiny kitchen is visible from the dining room, and the scene back there generally looks to be verging on chaos. Nonetheless, an endless stream of fine cooking issues forth. There is no question that Lorna's can handle veal, since it sent out a lovely dish of sauteed scallops that had been topped with provolone cheese and fresh, uncooked spinach. The texture and bright, fresh flavor of the spinach played a key role in the dish, and the finishing touch was an expert tomato sauce enriched with the classic wine-butter sauce that traditionally tops Italian veal sautees.

Other formal entree choices include both veal and chicken in Marsala and piccata treatments, as well as chicken sauteed with vegetables and a roasted bird flavored with herbs and garlic. Vegetarians can look to the eggplant parmigiana, but may be disappointed, since a recent sample was handled in a rather pedestrian fashion. A happier choice is the lasagna Florentine, which stuffs the sheets of pasta with spinach and ricotta.

The restaurant, presumably to take advantage of its handsome oven, bakes a surprising array of high-rising cheesecakes. A lighter dessert might seem more in order after Lorna's outsized meals, but lightness apparently is irrelevant here, and the general message seems to be to either dig in or desist. These are good, creamy cakes, and the version flavored with lemon and lemon drop candies seems as good an end as any to one of Lorna's highly seasoned meals.

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