Every time you go out to dinner it doesn’t have to be a fancy gourmet experience. Maybe you just want to wear your jeans and have a relaxing meal in an attractive but unpretentious little bistro, while watching the crowds walk by on Forest Avenue. If you do, we have just the place for you, and it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.
Pomodoro is a chain restaurant (even though we can’t have chain restaurants in Laguna Beach "” or can we?) but it doesn’t feel like one. Perhaps because it has taken the space of the very upscale, hip, and now defunct, Vertical Wine Bar. This is a sidewalk cafÃ© on a real street, not a faux one inside a mall. Sitting on the outdoor patio watching the action is almost reminiscent of life in Europe. Even inside, the front glass wall allows you to be a part of the scene.
This is not your American/Italian red sauce restaurant. There are no fried calamari or pizzas, but neither are there grilled figs wrapped in pancetta with dandelion greens, nor gnocchi with wild boar ragu. Instead, you will find a more Northern Italian style, simply prepared and simply presented.
Be careful! Be very, very careful when the bread arrives, because it is accompanied by a dish of amazing salty, basil, garlic oil for dipping that is positively addictive!
If you don’t mind the calories, the appetizer of polenta farcita was rich and delicious. How could it not be, with all the brown butter in which it floated and the fontina cheese with which it was stuffed? All that richness was punctuated by the herby goodness of deep-fried sage leaves. The advertised spinach did not appear at all, but we did encounter some slightly heated, fresh, chopped tomatoes that added a contrasting note of freshness.
The gamberi (shrimp) were presented in a cast iron pan with slabs of grilled bread for dipping in the light, garlicky tomato sauce. The six medium-sized shrimp were not the sweetest, but the toasts were great for mopping up the tasty sauce.
Ravioli di zucca (butternut squash) can be ordered in a half-portion as an appetizer. Several other pastas, salads and soups can also be ordered in smaller-sized portions as well; great for lighter appetites, kids or creating your own tasting menu. The ravioli also came swimming in brown butter and was topped with the same delicious fried sage but the squash filling was bland. However, an unexpected layer of flavor came from the unusual topping of crumbled amoretti cookies sprinkled generously on the pillows of properly cooked pasta. The combination of sweet crumbs and savory sage was very nice.
A lighter alternative to begin your meal might be the grilled asparagus with shavings of Romano cheese or the mixed green salad with its very tasty balsamic vinaigrette. Steamed mussels are also an appetizing starter.
For pasta, in addition to the old standards like Alfredo, pomodoro or Bolognese, there are some less familiar variations that sound interesting. Tortellini alla panna has a braised beef and pork filling in pancetta, sage and cream sauce. Malfedine (a broad flat, ripple-edged noodle) comes with shrimp, asparagus, tomato, cream and shrimp stock reduction. Whole-wheat fusilli is available as a substitution for many of the pastas.
We tried the seasonal special of lasagna vegetariana. The term lasagna is used here loosely. It was mostly vegetables: broccoli, portabellos, zucchini and bits of asparagus, tossed in a light tomato sauce with just a hint of fontina cheese and a noodle or two. It did not appear to have been baked and was missing the expected layer of ricotta cheese. We found ourselves adding salt and pepper to give this bland version some liveliness.
Bistecca is a good choice for the secondi platti. Although it is described as a grilled Angus ribeye, think European-style steak rather than American. A thin, fairly small but tasty piece of meat is brushed with olive oil and served with a topping of peppery arugula and salty shaved pecorino. It is accompanied by large, white Tuscan beans with lots of garlic. A side order of sautÃ©ed spinach with garlic pine nuts and olive oil goes really well with this very Italian steak.
There are three chicken breast entrÃ©es: parmigiana, marsala and simply grilled. Fish fanciers can have grilled salmon with salsa verde, canellini beans and spinach.
Vegetarians will find any number of choices here, from appetizers to pastas to entrÃ©es. We tried the verdure, a vegetable plate that can be ordered with olive oil and garlic or spicy pomodoro sauce. You can also add farro, a dense chewy grain with a rich nutty flavor that looks and tastes a little like barley. The verdure, which we ordered with the farro, had the same veggie medley as the lasagna with the addition of perky sun dried tomatoes, which added a bit of welcome flavor. The red chili flakes we requested never arrived.
You can satisfy your sweet tooth with the requisite tiramisu or the ricotta and mascarpone cheesecake, panna cotta with strawberries marinated in lemon and grappa, and semifreddo with hazelnuts and biscotti.
The warm chocolate soufflÃ© is a fraternal twin of the dessert appearing on almost every menu called molten chocolate cake. This version was lighter in flavor and texture but somehow it just didn’t taste very “chocolatey." The cake was served with dark chocolate sauce and a small scoop of whipped cream and ice cream.
Pomodoro has an environment that is as nice as the more expensive restaurants in town. The food is certainly a cut above other chain restaurants and it is very affordable, although the service is somewhat off hand. Plan on waiting during busy summer nights and weekends because they do not take reservations.
Attention: French 75 Not Closing
Some other branches are in Chapter 11, but ours is thriving and better than ever as Chef Mitch gains control of the menu. We had a fabulous dinner there the other night.
IF YOU GO
ADDRESS: 234 Forest Ave.
PHONE: (949) 497-8222
WHEN: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
Appetizers: $2.50 to $8.75
EntrÃ©es: $7.95 to $13.95
Desserts: $4.25 to $6.25
Bottles: $25 to $41
By the glass: $4.95 to $10.50
Corkage Fee: $10
ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ owned a la Carte for 20 years and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.