If the Accademia della Crusca--the Italian language police--ever come around and ask, don’t tell them I said that Trattoria Spiga is nearly the perfect restaurant. Trattoria, after all, is the Italian for sidewalk cafe, and this place is situated (gasp!) in the lobby of the posh Crystal Court in Costa Mesa. I wouldn’t stand a chance. Shopping malls don’t have sidewalks.
But this is a restaurant for splitting dishes, not hairs. The menu is full of wonderful little snacks and pastas offered at remarkably low prices, and the ambience, in spite of the considerable designer elegance, is informal enough to encourage passing dishes back and forth at the table. About the only thing this restaurant lacks is a good view. I spent the better part of my last lunch here staring mindlessly into the window of an Esprit store.
It is an improved view, though. The new owner--Italatin Inc., a restaurant consortium counting, among others, Antonio Cagnolo of Antonello and the well-traveled Enzo De Muro--has replaced the gaudy reds of the former Gianni with more dignified shades of sienna. It has also added color-splashed umbrellas--more to shield guests from the glances of people on the escalators, of course, than from the sun--making a meal here seem almost intimate.
The owners have been smart in not tampering with those qualities that were so appealing when this was Gianni. The handsome tile kitchen is still open here, and a wood fire still burns nonstop in the brick pizza oven. The display case is still full of wonderful desserts and cookies to tempt you between meals, too, but these desserts and cookies are better than their predecessors. And now you can wash them down with one of the best coffee drinks in Orange County--a magnificent iced espresso served in a champagne glass.
Perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves. A host of good, unusually light, antipasti make sensible beginnings here. The lightest of these, though, carpaccio di tonno, is probably the least interesting. The tuna was most probably quick-frozen to allow for these microtome-thin slices, and you’d need a windshield scraper to get them off the plate intact. Surprisingly, the heaviest of them is probably the best. That would be the vitello tonnato, thin (but workably so) slices of prime veal topped with an ultra velvety tuna sauce and some frizzled radicchio.
Appetizers such as e melanzane alla Barese and pepperoni arrosti e mozzarella affumicata fall somewhere in the middle, and both taste great when eaten with the soft house focaccia bread (which you douse with balsamic vinegar and Romano cheese- and rosemary-infused olive oil from the little glass bottles on your table). The melanzane is a layered terrine of eggplant served cold and heavily perfumed with sweet basil and blanketed with a rustic chunked tomato sauce. The pepperoni consists of marinated and roasted bell peppers with scamorza, that royally smoky mozzarella cheese.
I also like the fact that the restaurant has a list of specials daily, and that that list always includes a hearty peasant-style soup. Piselli is a thick pea soup with a smoky taste that puts Andersen’s to shame. You might also find pasta e fagioli, the Roman pasta and bean soup classic, or a smooth puree of cauliflower and tomato, depending on when you visit.
Pizzas are always available, served on a wooden plank and made with those matzo-thin crusts that happen to be the fashion right now. These toppings are intense, to say the least; they all seem to be exaggerated versions of their prototypes.
Quattro formaggi, the familiar four-cheese pizza, is made with the requisite Fontina, mozzarella and Parmesan, but then it’s nearly blown out by a generous sprinkling of Gorgonzola, a cheese that needs no encouragement. Pizza ai frutti di mare, a Neapolitan specialty of mussels, clams and shrimp, has to have one of the most concentrated and spiciest tomato sauces I have ever experienced, a pizza for tomato-worshipers only. And one daily special pizza I tasted, pizza ai pomodori secchi, was positively outrageous. It came completely covered, side to side, with intensely pungent sun-dried tomatoes.
Pastas can be terrific here, my only complaint being that the occasional one may come to the table slightly overcooked. The risottos, available daily from the specials list, are simply the best around. Spiga uses a good quality Arborio rice and cooks it to soft chewiness. I’ve had risotto mari e monti here, with shrimp and porcini mushrooms in a creamy tomato sauce, and one called alla Genovese, made with pesto and scallops. Either would be enough to bring me back.
Gnocchi panna e pesto are excellent potato flour dumplings, firm but tender, in a pesto cream sauce. Cappellini alle zucchine tastes terrific, but ask that it not be overcooked. Angel hair pasta is, for good reason, the hardest pasta to cook, and it would be a pity if your dish clumped together the way mine did. The pureed zucchini and garlic wine sauce that accompanies the dish is inspirational.
I cannot say the same for two pastas containing meat here: agnolotti alla Piemontese and cannelloni alla Antica. Oh, one could quibble that agnolotti are half-moon shaped in Italy and that here they are square. But the cannelloni are truly artful--long, narrow tubes that look almost futuristic. It’s actually the filling that does them both in: aromatically spiced minced veal better suited to a Greek dish.
Now about those desserts. You can hardly ignore all those little cakes on display, but by the time they arrive at the table, they are positively resplendent. Spiga slices them thin, dresses them up with sauces and fresh fruits, and dollops them with hand-whipped cream.
Lemonissima is a rich lemon tea cake with a raspberry sauce. Soffice e leggera is like a pineapple upside-down cake in a buttery caramel sauce. And the biggest showoff of them all, baschetto di bosco, is a round hollowed-out chocolate cake spilling fruit and cream over the sides.
I don’t know about you, but I’m willing to overlook the thing about the sidewalk.
Trattoria Spiga is moderately priced and an excellent value in its class. Antipasti are $3.95 to $6.95. Pastas are $6.25 to $8.95. Pizzas are $5.75 to $10.50.
* TRATTORIA SPIGA
* The Crystal Court, 3333 Bear St., Costa Mesa.
* (714) 540-3365.
* Lunch and dinner 11 a.m. through 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. through 7 p.m. Sunday.
* All major cards accepted.