The Gossiping Gourmet: Antonello continues fine dining tradition

Antonello, which opened its doors in 1979, is as venerable as an Orange County restaurant gets. This grand old dame has been serving exemplary and well-praised Northern Italian cuisine for more than 32 years.

The ersatz Old World palazzo is a step back in time with its trompe l'oeil stone archways and climbing vines, while high-beamed ceilings and chandeliers define the main dining area. Having doubled in size since its debut, owner Antonio Cagnolo has added eight private dining rooms for parties and events.

In the kitchen, replacing longtime chef Franco Barone, is a unique duo of executive chefs, Gino Bounanoce and Salvatore Ferrara, continuing the tradition of flavorful Italian cuisine.

We sat in a nook and though the house was full, we received service that was warm, friendly and very attentive without being intrusive. The acoustics are such that, even busy as it was, conversation was not a challenge.

We were there during restaurant week for their $40-, four-course menu but we were pleased to see that a $35.95 three-course prix fixe menu is always available, belying the notion that you have to be on an expense account to eat here.

We began with a lovely pulpo carpaccio: paper-thin slices of octopus fanned out around the plate, bathed in lemony vinaigrette and garnished with a generous arugula salad. The shaved octopus was delicate in flavor, tender in texture and the beautifully balanced dressing provided a piquant burst of citrusy freshness while the arugula added zesty peppery punch, magnified by bits of freshly ground black pepper.

On other evenings the carpaccio is made with wild boar, which is surprisingly tame in flavor. Another classic, rarely seen on this side of the Atlantic is seppi, cuttlefish, a cousin of squid, which was sautéed with white wine, shallots, fresh tomatoes and peas.

The pasta course featured simple ricotta spinach ravioli in tomato sauce and a more nuanced porcini fettuccine. The lightly stuffed ravioli had a thin chewy wrapper and a nice basic San Marzano-type tomato sauce.

However, the dish to write home about was the excellent fettuccine. A good pasta dish is first and foremost defined by the texture of the pasta itself and this one was perfect. The complex white wine sauce bumped it up yet another notch. It was chock full of intensely flavorful porcini mushrooms, a judicious amount of garlic and the coup de grace, a suffusion of ambrosial truffle oil. Another pasta to try is orecchiette, which comes with house-made Pugliese style sausage.

The secundi (entrée) was a choice of swordfish or lamb. Very good roasted potatoes, with a thin, crispy exterior and a lush, creamy interior, accompanied both dishes. Spring asparagus made another tasty side.

An excellent piece of swordfish was grilled, according to request, a little on the rare side, yielding juicy, flavorful, piscatorial pleasures. It was gently enhanced with herbs, olive oil and cherry tomatoes. The two good-sized lamb chops were lightly crusted with breadcrumbs and mint, but the chops themselves were a bit bland and lacked meaty depth.

A sweet finish was the chocolate fudge with zabaglione, a Marsala custard, and vanilla ice cream. The "chocolate fudge" triangles were more like flourless chocolate cake and were certainly not as sweet as fudge but had lots of deep chocolate goodness.

They were slathered with zabaglione, a bit on the boozy side but a nice complement to the "fudge."

Not so sweet was the dessert of fresh berries. Why bother when the fruit is not seasonal? The berries were on the sour side, but had a lot of mascarpone whipped cream on top.

Antonello's longevity is a testament to the quality of the food and service at this classic Italian restaurant.

Antonello

Where: 3800 South Plaza Drive, in South Coast Plaza Village, Santa Ana

When:

Lunch: 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday

Dinner: 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and 5 to 10 p.m. Saturday

Prices:

Appetizers: $8 to $18

Entrées: $18 to $42

Prix Fixe: $35.95

Desserts: $8.95 to $14

Wine:

Bottles: $32 to $800

½ bottles: $35 to $95

By the glass: $8 to $20

Corkage Fee: $20 ($25 for wine that is on their menu)

Information: (714) 751-7153, http://www.antonello.com

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