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THE GOSSIPING GOURMET: A taste of Tuscany draws them in

Dining out recently has been a lonely experience. We frequently find ourselves alone in the dining room except for an occasional party or two across the floor. Of course, we usually eat on weeknights early in the week when restaurants tend to be less busy. Still, the economy lately has dealt restaurants a heavy blow, so we were quite surprised when we entered Modo Mio on a Monday night and were greeted with the buzz of a busy restaurant.

Although there didn’t seem to be a hostess, a waitress appeared, whisked us to a table and settled us in with the menu. The prices seemed quite reasonable, especially when we saw how generous the portions were. This might be a clue to the crowded room.

Certainly, the ambience is quite pleasant with an open kitchen and the décor of a modern Italian trattoria.

Good warm bread really butters us up and this bread arrived hot from the oven with a delicious crunchy crust, which came in very handy later on for sopping up sauces.

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We ordered two appetizers and two entrées and our very pleasant and savvy waitress asked if we were going to be sharing everything. Then, she asked if we would like our dinner served in four courses. Since this is exactly how we like our food presented, we were pleased not to have to ask. Even more pleasing was that when it arrived, each course had been divided in two in the kitchen and except for one dish, each half portion could easily have passed for a full-sized one.

The dinner was a bit of a roller coaster ride with its ups and downs. We started out with a really high point. From the extensive appetizer menu, we selected the salmone affumicato. Wrapped around each of four crunchy spring asparagus stalks were thick, generous slices of smoked salmon topped with a honey mustard drizzle. Accompanying the spears was a creamy hunk of goat cheese. This was salmon and cream cheese bumped up a notch, minus the bagel. Also, there were some of the best kalamata olives we’ve tasted in a while. Marinated artichokes and tomato slices rounded out the plate. A whole portion would make a light meal.

Our next dish was truly the low point. Verdure alla griglia was a plate of roasted vegetables that could only be justified as “spa cuisine.” The small, uninspired selection included: two very thin pieces of zucchini, a slender slice of eggplant, two red and green pepper strips, a hunk of onion, a halved Roma tomato and two slices of undercooked potato. Not a drop of oil in sight, making the sprinkling of dried herbs taste like paper. There was no love in this dish. It was simply too boring to eat.

Other starters are: a classic antipasto of meats and cheeses; a number of salads including tri-colored or grilled shrimp with eggplant and zucchini; and a torta rustica, a pastry shell filled with spinach, ricotta and prosciutto. There are also two nice seafood soups, guazzetto and zuppa di gamberi as well as a soup of the day.

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From the low of the verdure, we zoomed all the way to the top. Every night, Modo Mio offers a fresh house-made pasta that can be served in any of their pasta preparations if you don’t care for that evening’s special one. The night we dined, they were featuring tagliatelle carbonara but we opted for the seafood cartoccio and requested the pasta al dente. (In our opinion, you should always ask for pasta this way.)

Cartoccio indicates pasta with a sauce baked in parchment or foil. Since our order was split in the kitchen, we never saw the package. We did see some very nice shrimp, mussels, clams and calamari in a light tomato sauce, redolent with garlic and sweet with the juices of the seafood. All the seafood was tasty and tender, most notably the little clams, which often (on this coast) taste like rubber bands. The house-made tagliatelle (long, flat egg noodles somewhere between linguine and fettuccine in width) had a wonderful texture, with a complex chewiness. The sauce was delicious, very fresh tasting without a hint of tomato paste. This is where the good bread really served us well.

Rigatoni con porcini took us to somewhere in the middle. After the height of the perfect tagliatelle pasta, we thought the rigatoni was a bit overcooked. The rich sauce had a mild flavor rather than the expected intense mushroomy one. It also lacked character and depth, a one-note melody.

In Italian restaurants, we always prefer the antipasti and the pasta courses rather than the secondi, which are usually simple, grilled meat and fish dishes and that’s the case here. You might try a chicken breast with spinach, provolone and prosciutto, scallopine of veal with Portobellos, rosemary and sautéed onions or a classic cioppino.

Memories of gelato in the Piazza Novona led us to try a tartufo (Italian for truffle). This is a ball-shaped ice cream dessert with a center filling, often fruit, surrounded by an ice cream layer, followed by a chocolate coating with nuts or chocolate shavings or both.

Two types are offered here: one with a fudge center, cappuccino ice cream and crushed meringue; or the one we chose with a zabaglione center, dark chocolate ice cream and a coating of chocolate rolled in hazelnuts. We can’t believe we ate the whole thing but the ice cream was really good and creamy, especially paired with the crunchy coatings. Strangely, we haven’t had good ice cream in a restaurant for quite some time. It was nice to end our meal on a high note.

They also do a classic tiramisu, lemon cheesecake, two tarts — apple and chocolate pecan, flourless chocolate cake and sorbetto in a fruit shell.

Knowing what to order might be the secret of eating well at Modo Mio. Certainly, many people seem to be enjoying this reasonably priced Tuscan transplant.

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IF YOU GO

WHAT: Modo Mio Cucina Rustica (949) 497-9770 modomiocucinarustica.com

WHERE: 7946 E. Coast Highway

WHEN: Lunch: 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; dinner: 5 to 10 p.m. daily

PRICES:

Appetizers: $5 to $12

Entrées: $10 to $30

Desserts: $3.50 to $7

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WINE:

Bottles: $22 to $150

By the glass: $6 to $29

Corkage Fee: $18


ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ owned a la Carte for 20 years and can be reached at themarkos755@yahoo.com.


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