Nestled in a tiny storefront on Balboa Island is a new and charming, romantic little bistro called Trattoria Mediterranean. It is a treasure box, with its candlelit atmosphere, the sound of trickling water from the fountain on the terrace and the wrought-iron grillwork of the entryway, secluding this little gem from the hustle and bustle of the street. All this plus the tastefully appointed décor combine to make it a delightful place to dine.
The owners of this new eatery are husband-and-wife team Sean and Elie Dadmand, recently arrived from Canada, where he worked for many years as a manager in Italian restaurants. Elie, who acted as our waitress for the evening, was just delightful — friendly, charming and radiating sweetness.
We ordered some garlic Parmesan bread as we checked out the menu and decided on hummus as a nice starter for a Mediterranean meal. It was prettily presented in a heart shape on a plate, made colorful with lemon, lime, tomato wedges and abstract designs created with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. A basket of crispy pita chips was provided for scooping. We found the creamy hummus to be very subtly seasoned, maybe too subtle. We were looking for something more assertive. We solved the problem by putting the spread on the garlic bread.
From France are unique versions of two traditional salads, including salade aux lardons with baby spinach, roasted tomatoes, cranberries, bacon and caramelized walnuts tossed in a sundried tomato basil dressing topped with crumbled goat cheese. The other is salade au chevre chaud with mixed greens, tomatoes, marinated beets, caramelized walnuts and champagne dressing, topped with a seared goat cheese tart.
The soup of the evening was a delicious fresh chicken broth dotted with carrots and peas. Fennel and fennel fronds gave it a unique flavor that was irresistible. It was also light enough to make a lovely starter without filling you up.
For our Italian pasta course, we selected rigatoni Abruzzese, which came in a very large portion. Fat pasta tubes had been cooked to perfect al dente texture. Wilted spinach leaves, shreds of sundried tomato and pine nuts added texture and subtle accents to a chunky tomato sauce that was just superb! Three of us couldn't finish it all.
Our secondo was classic chicken Parmesan. Although our chicken breast was very tender and juicy, the breading was not crispy. It was topped with the same lovely tomato sauce and a layer of mozzarella. It came with a side order of capellini aglio e olio, thin spaghetti with a garlic and olive oil coating and finished with Parmesan cheese. It is amazing how delicious something so simple can be. Good pasta, perfectly cooked, doesn't really need anything more than this.
Salmon puttanesca at Trattoria is a salmon filet with diced tomatoes, artichokes, capers and sundried tomatoes in a lemon white wine sauce. This preparation takes liberties with the description "puttanesca," usually a pasta dish with spicy tomatoes, anchovies and olives.
Meat-eaters will have a choice of rack of lamb, marinated in port wine and sundried tomatoes served with mint sauce or a variety of veal dishes, including veal Oscar, the only non-Mediterranean dish on the menu, named after a 19th-century Swedish king who liked his veal with crabmeat.
We finished our meal with tiramisu, cake infused with coffee flavor, in this case from Kahlua, layered with mascarpone mixed with whipped cream and topped with cocoa powder. It was a light version of this classic dessert.
Something we haven't seen on a menu for many a moon is zabaglione: egg yolks, marsala and sugar whipped laboriously by hand until frothy and immediately served warm in a tall glass. It's a delicious light dessert that we wish would have a revival.
ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Where: 216 1/2 Marine Ave., Newport Beach
When: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily; dinner 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 4 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Appetizers: $5.95 to $10.95
Entrées: $10.95 to $29.95
Desserts: $4 to $6
Glass: $5.95 to $10.95
Bottle: $25.95 to $82.95
Corkage fee: $15
Information: (949) 566-9525 or http://www.trattoriamediterranean.com