The Gossiping Gourmet: After three months, Filomena's feels like family

Finding Filomena's Italian Kitchen was like finding an old friend. This neighborhood restaurant in Costa Mesa brought back memories of the small, family-owned Italian places in New York's Little Italy.

The cozy, welcoming atmosphere, the warm, friendly staff and the classic Italian food all added up to a very pleasant evening. The restaurant opened in September, but it was clear that many of the customers were already regulars.

I saw lots of hugging going on, but new customers were also welcomed like family. This is the goal of chef and owner Linda English — to recreate the feeling in her grandmother's kitchen.

The restaurant is small, but the noise level is low and conversation is easy. The room is attractive, featuring wood floors and tables, a nice bar area and soft lighting. All that was missing were the straw-covered Chianti bottles with dripping candles.

Our charming waiter, Hector, brought us the glasses of red wine we ordered accompanied by a little dish containing two very good pieces of dark chocolate. The breadbasket included delicious garlic bread knots made from the Kitchen's pizza dough. The women at the next table were raving to their waitress about them, and when they were leaving, she gave them a little bagful on the house.

Beginning our meal with some calamari and an order of bruschetta, we were impressed by the generosity of the portions and continued to be throughout the meal, especially considering the prices.

Three large, thick slices of toasted Italian bread were topped with sweet marinated red peppers, pine nuts and raisins — a fortuitous marriage of flavors, but too much to eat before an entrée. We enjoyed the rest, along with a few other leftovers from our dinner, the next day for lunch.

The calamari fritti was lightly breaded and served with a house-made marinara sauce. I was hoping for more garlic or more heat from the dipping sauce.

My guest had the house-made ravioli and meatballs. The ravioli were large and stuffed with four different cheeses. They were good but a little overcooked; we like our pasta al dente. Two large beef and pork meatballs sat on top, and a slightly spicy version of the Kitchen's marinara sauce cloaked the entrée. Next time, I'll request the spicier tomato sauce to go with my calamari.

The gentleman at the next table heard us discussing what to order and recommended the Champagne chicken, which he said was wonderful. Three boneless skinless breast halves were thinly cloaked in cheese and served atop risotto. The sauce was very buttery and had a touch of Champagne. The risotto had a perfect amount of cheese and distinct grains of rice.

I was glad that our neighboring diner recommended it, since it was quite good. On our next visit, we want to try their seafood lasagna.

We chose two classic desserts to sample. I am always hopeful when I order tiramisu, because I have occasionally had some good ones, but most suffer from sitting in the refrigerator too long. Such was the case here. The cake part was soggy and overly sweet.

In contrast, our other favorite Italian dessert, cannoli, was really good. The crust was absolutely crisp and crunchy, and the ricotta filling was rich and creamy with bits of chocolate. It was right up there with the best of them.

We were simply not able to include a pizza in our tasting, but we will be back in the near future. The restaurant has a to-go menu. On Fridays, it has an osso bucco special, while on Sundays, a family-style meal is featured. Its web page updates with daily specials, new dishes and more.

Filomena's Italian Kitchen is the kind of local restaurant you want in your neighborhood, but it's also worth a drive.

TERRY MARKOWITZ was in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. She can be reached for comments or questions at m_markowitz@cox.net.

Filomena's Italian Kitchen

Where: 2400 Newport Blvd., Costa Mesa

When: 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays

Prices:

Appetizers: $4 to $11

Entrées: $13 to $25

Desserts: $6

Wine:

Bottles: $24 to $250

By the glass: $8 to $10

Corkage fee: $10

Information: (949) 642-3810 or http://www.facebook.com/filomenasoc

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