Somewhere, in some secret corner of town, there must be a place where restaurateurs take a number and wait their turn for the opportunity to open San Diego's newest Italian eatery.
Restaurants come and go, but currently it seems that the majority of those heading in either direction serve pasta, pizza and tiramisu . A case in point is the departure from Hillcrest of the short-lived Dei Binari, which had its attractive points but obviously failed to excite the public. The pizza ovens barely had time to cool before Donatello, owned by the proprietors of the well-regarded Leonardo's in Rancho Bernardo, took over and sent the aroma of garlic sizzling in olive oil into the intersection of University and Fifth.
The situation has come to the point--the saturation point, in fact--at which some sort of classification schedule would be useful in describing each new Italian house. Lacking such a code, it could be said that Donatello falls into a middle range between the old-fashioned "red restaurants" that still dominate in older parts of town, and the costly, high-style places moving into downtown and La Jolla. Although Donatello offers a trendy pizza topped with goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes, it also serves such basics as linguine in a choice of red or white clam sauces.
Donatello actually looks more like a "red restaurant" than a contemporary place, and by design; the whimsical murals commissioned by Dei Binari have been painted over in white and green, and the chairs upholstered in red. The vanished murals, quite frankly, are a loss, but Donatello seems interested in brand identification, and no Italian restaurant looks more Italian than one decorated in the hues of the Italian flag.
As is true at many newer restaurants, the most attractive aspect of the decor is the arrangement of antipasti set out near the entrance to the dining room. Some of the six or seven offerings change from day to day, while the trays of marinated and grilled or roasted zucchini, eggplant and peppers are constants in the display. A recent selection that included rounds of caprese (tomato slices topped with basil leaves and squares of soft, fresh mozzarella) was well-executed if not wildly imaginative, although the mustard flavor in the zucchini was shocking and bold. Also a little unusual, and quite nice, were the moderately hot peppers stuffed with shredded prosciutto and bits of sharp cheese.
Other than on the entree list, which features the same four veal dishes offered by nearly every Italian eatery, Donatello does head off in some interesting directions. Besides the mixed antipasto, there are starters of beef carpaccio paved with sheets of grana , or generic Parmesan, and a false carpaccio of salmon that uses smoked fish rather than raw; the decoration of capers and onions cries out for a bagel with which to complete the picture. There is, inevitably, a Caesar salad, but an unusually good one, as well as a likable arrangement of spinach dressed up with pancetta, mushrooms and artichoke hearts, and a zesty tomato salad flavored with roasted peppers, onions and oregano.
The fresh breads make as good a starter as any, but can be a little dangerous to the appetite: It's easy to fill up on these, especially the tiny, twisted knots of pizza dough, dipped in garlic oil and baked to a crisp, aromatic finish.
Pastas include capellini calabrese , or angel hair with shrimp, broccoli, garlic and oil, a good alternative for a day when tomato sauce sounds heavy. But Donatello does handle various tomato sauces well, and cooks versions lighter than elsewhere. Two of these show to advantage in the spaghetti alla campagnola , which lightens meaty bolognese sauce with plain marinara, and throws in mushrooms and extra garlic for good measure. The kitchen also sends out a well-balanced, reasonably spicy bucatini (hollow spaghetti, pleasant between the teeth and rather fun to eat) alla matriciana , or in a sauce of tomatoes, basil, hot peppers, garlic and minced pancetta bacon.
None of the pizzas were sampled, but the bread knots mentioned earlier indicate the basis of a firm, chewy crust. A pesto pizza includes Gorgonzola as well as mozzarella in the topping, which sounds like a potently pungent combination, and the primavera version tops the pie with the same vegetables offered on the antipasto buffet.
The entree list stays closer to tradition and specializes in the usual eggplant parmigiana, veal Marsala and peppers with sausage (the sausage, however, is confected on the premises). Chicken gets better than average coverage and is offered grilled with a topping of herb-and-garlic seasoned mushrooms, or topped with artichoke hearts, onions and cream sauce. Seafood choices include salmon, bedded on spinach and finished with a lemon cream, and grilled shrimp flavored with garlic and oregano.
The saltimbocca , if a standard offering, is done with some style, and the kitchen by no means seems shy about using fresh sage, a key ingredient that many restaurants omit, out of ignorance, parsimony or contempt for their clientele. The quality of the veal also is encouraging; this cuts with a fork. The bistecca alla fiorentina , on the other hand, meets the requirements of this Florentine classic more in the letter than the spirit, since the Porterhouse steak brushed with oil (and rosemary, at Donatello) really ought to be rather thick. Given the price of $15.95, it may be unreasonable to expect a 1 1/2-inch cut of steak. Besides tiramisu , which means "pick me up" but too often is a letdown, the pastry tray includes cannoli, a chocolate torte and a torta di formaggio that, although the name translates simply as cheesecake, is a more delicate and flavorful product than the kind usually encountered in this city.
DONATELLO 3900 5th Ave., Hillcrest 291-1539 Lunch weekdays, dinner nightly Pastas and entrees $8.50 to $15.95. Dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $35 to $65 Credit cards accepted