Everybody's always asking, "What's the best local Italian restaurant?" Tough question; lately, though, I've been sending a lot of people to Prego, mainly because its quality has been so consistent over the years. Like other restaurants owned by Spectrum Foods, including Tutto Mare in Fashion Island and the Beverly Hills Prego, it's not only handsome but also managed with clockwork precision.
In terms of what's on the menu, Prego is among the few local restaurants totally faithful to the Italian sensibility, and a lot of the offerings, though nowhere near the cutting edge, are delicious.
Prego is a huge place with a classic Tuscan exterior; it could easily pass for a regal villa in Chianti. Inside this high-ceilinged building, as in many affluent Italian homes, the appointments are ultramodern and tastefully chic. Besides a gleaming display kitchen, it has polished wood floors, framed watercolors and an abbondanza of towering floral sprays in oversized terracotta vases.
There are three main dining areas separated by glass partitions; this setup allows a degree of intimacy. You sit on sleek banquettes upholstered in a pattern that might have come from the latest Armani tie. The waiters, in their mustard-yellow uniforms, are as well-dressed as the customers. (This is very much a dress-up place.)
If I have criticism of Prego, it is the corporate mentality that is also responsible for the restaurant's efficiency. Chef Alberto Morello has honed his operation, but I'd like to see him take more chances. The menu may be varied, listing dishes from just about everywhere in Italy, but there's nothing on it that hasn't been knocking around Southland restaurants for years.
You have to begin a meal with pane aglio e rosmarino, a flatbread served steamy hot from the wood oven. Crisp around the edges, chewy inside and imbued throughout with the flavors of garlic and rosemary, it proves how great bread can be. It's the only bread here, save the bread sticks included with meals.
The calamaretti fritti is a classic mound of deftly fried squid, served with a nicely emulsified parsley-caper aioli, but some other starters are less auspicious. Carpaccio G. Cipriani, for instance. The raw beef is topped with shaved Parmesan, an enormous helping of capers and a fine dressing of lemon juice and extra-virgin olive oil, but the texture is mushy. Like most Italian restaurants, Prego freezes the beef slightly so it can be thinly sliced; here, somehow, the beef takes on excess water in the process.
The antipasto misto boasts an impressively colorful array of roasted peppers, cold cuts and marinated vegetables. But most of the components, especially the bufala mozzarella and the marinated mushrooms, have scarcely any flavor.
A pizza should perk things up. The crust of a Prego pizza is thin, chewy and just about perfect, and the toppings are lively and well put together. Pizza Toscana, topped with spicy Italian sausage, grilled fennel, tomatoes and mozzarella, gives an impression at once hot and sweet. Pizza dal Mediterraneo has lots of shrimp, calamari and clams, the ocean flavors enhanced by a light tomato sauce. The simplest is the pizza Margherita, with the can't-miss topping of mozzarella, tomato sauce, basil and oregano.
Prego makes all its own pastas on the premises. My favorite is taglioni del campo, an egg-yellow ribbon-shaped noodle tossed with a restrained portion of leeks, spinach, green beans and Parmesan cheese.
Lasagna al forno is in the Emilia-Romagna style, making it only a distant cousin to the thick, ricotta-filled southern Italian lasagna that most restaurants serve. It's composed of six layers of pasta (rolled as thin as bed sheets) with a rich, meaty ragu sauce thinly applied among them, like frosting in a layer cake. Another good pasta here is cappellacci di melanzane, a chewy eggplant-stuffed ravioli with real bite.
The grilled and rotisserie meats (griglia e spiedo on the menu) are generally top-notch. They include duck, rabbit, chicken and leg of lamb. I've tasted only the rabbit and the chicken, but I'd venture that the other two are every bit as juicy and delicious. All the rotisserie meats are rubbed with rosemary and sage, a wonderful embellishment of nature. From the grill, I recommend costata di manzo, a tender rib-eye steak served with spinach and a mound of Tuscan white beans.
For dessert, Prego's tiramisu is a creamy version made with lots of mascarpone cheese. You can also get a crusty pear tart (a bit on the dry side) with a thin layer of marzipan lurking between the crust and the fruit.
Look to the back pages of the menu for an eclectic list of California and Italian wines. There is also a captain's list, for those with the budget, or the inclination, to spend $100 or more on the latest super-Tuscan wine superstar.
Prego is expensive. Antipasti are $6.50-$8.25. Pizzas are $6.95-$10.95. Pasta dishes are $9.25-$13.50. Grilled items are $11.95-$19.25.
Prego, 18420 Von Karman Ave., Irvine. (714) 553-1333. 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-midnight Friday, 5 p.m.-midnight Saturday, 5-10:30 p.m. Sunday. All major cards.