The story of Rumari is the same story you always read on the back of the menu in little Italian restaurants. In 1972, Bina and Antonio Crivello left their restaurant in Porticello, Sicily and moved to California.
Bina taught Vincent and his four brothers how to cook so that she could stay home and watch soap operas while, following in the family tradition, Vincent opened Rumari restaurant in Laguna Beach.
Bobby opened Crivellos in Huntington Beach, Sebastien opened Crivellos in Temecula, and Poppa Antonio has kept his hand in the family business by coming into Rumari every day to make their authentic focaccia bread.
“Authentic” describes just about everything on the menu in this Southern Italian neighborhood restaurant. The cooking style is “homey,” the presentation is unpretentious and the décor is modest but warm.
On balmy nights, you can sit outside on the brick patio and dine alfresco beside Coast Highway. What you get here is just good food.
Laguna locals have been coming back for years to enjoy their favorite Italian specialties and avoid the downtown parking nightmare. We were surprised to see how crowded it was on the day after New Year’s, since we know that most restaurants are dead on the day after a holiday.
As we munched on the thin, crusty, warm focaccia, we mused on the difference between it and the “focotton” served most everywhere else these days. Although we usually order from the menu and avoid the specials, we simply couldn’t resist the offerings our waiter described.
Starting with a seafood salad that was, in fact, a seafood antipasto, we were impressed with the quality and handling of all the ingredients.
A shrimp remoulade had a light and luscious dressing tossed with small, plump, very fresh-tasting shrimp. Pieces of sliced lobster had a wonderful flavor from the grill. Smoked salmon was wrapped around slender sticks of bufala mozzarella and asparagus.
The salmon was deeply flavored and contrasted nicely with the creamy cheese and the crunchy asparagus. The plate was completed by butter lettuce lightly tossed with balsamic vinaigrette.
Although we know you may not be able to order this exact appetizer, the skill of the chef in handling the seafood tells us that other seafood dishes will be equally good. On the regular menu are a mixed antipasto, a bruschetta and a veal carpaccio marinated in olive oil and lemon juice on a bed of arugula, topped with shaved parmigiano.
Tonno agrodolce is sliced grilled ahi on arugula with balsamic dressing. Although it is not on the menu, you can always get their excellent Caesar salad. For a hot starter, try clams in spicy tomato broth, fried calamari, eggplant parmesan or skewered shrimp wrapped with pancetta.
Whenever we are eating pasta, we always ask if any of the choices are house-made. (Did you know that the term home-made has been banished from menus by the health department for its dishonesty?)
At Rumari, the ravioloni and the lasagna noodles are made in house, as was the evening special: cannelloni with two sauces. The cannelloni with its simple ricotta filling was a touch overcooked but each of the sauces was perfect.
Great tomato sauce is the hallmark of a good Italian restaurant. This fresh tomato sauce laced with vodka and balanced with cream (called macchiati) was as good as tomato sauce gets.
The creamy spinach, basil pesto was a delicious complement, and unnecessary — but fabulous — was a garnish of perfectly cooked shrimp.
Other tempting pasta choices are linguine alla pescatore, spaghetti siracrusana with eggplant, roasted peppers, and onions or fettuccine con salsa cremosa with chicken breast, artichoke hearts and peas in a creamy parmigiano sauce. Risottos include seafood, porcini with sun-dried tomatoes and one with sausage and roasted peppers.
For our entrée, we shared another special: Hawaiian shrimp (never before has the word shrimp been so oxymoronic). These gigantic crustaceans looked like baby lobsters.
Topped with seasoned breadcrumbs moistened with mustard and baked in the shell, they were incredibly tender and juicy. The shrimp were presented on a bed of arugula, providing a peppery contrast to the sweet seafood.
Picky as we are, we could find no fault here. Seafood seems to be Rumari’s strong point. Try the Mediterranean cioppino, a fish and seafood stew or the gamberoni alla brace, broiled giant prawns in lemon, herb and olive oil.
Four chicken breast preparations include pollo Marsala with mushrooms and wine and pollo alla Valdostana with prosciutto and fontina cheese in a white wine sauce.
No Italian restaurant worth its salt is complete without vitello. Here you can get three scaloppines: piccata, pizzaiola and saltimbocca and three veal chops: breaded, grilled with shrimp and porcini mushroom sauce or grilled with garlic, rosemary and sage in Chianti demi-glace. For beefeaters there are three fillets as well as sausage, onions and peppers on a bed of pasta.
Two of their desserts are house-made: tiramisu and cannoli. The rest are ice creams with toppings. Although no one seems to tire of tiramisu, we suggest that you try the fabulous cannoli.
Elle, in her youth, misspent many evenings pursuing the perfect cannoli on the streets of Little Italy in New York, but insists that this is the best version she’s ever come across.
Cannoli shells are often rock hard or overly soft from sitting in a refrigerated case for hours. This one was incredibly light and crispy and the ricotta filling, which is whipped for 30 minutes and hung in cheesecloth to drain off excess liquid, was very lightly sweetened and meltingly smooth. Accompanying the cannoli was a scoop of scrumptious white chocolate, chocolate chip ice cream.
There is a reason why this restaurant has been a Laguna favorite for so many years.