OltreMare's Triumphs and Tribulations

Many of the dishes at this San Clemente Italian eatery are indeed winners, but others come up short

A pasta pot pie. That’s the most accurate description I can offer for what OltreMare calls Trionfo de OltreMare, or “The Triumph,” a dish that, once and for all, brings together two of Italy’s most popular culinary exports: pizza and pasta.

If the pairing sounds somewhat incestuous—or like a complete contrivance à la Taco Bell’s CrunchWrap Supreme—it is. But in this case, it isn’t as patently wrong as wrapping a hard-shell taco inside a flour tortilla and calling it a meal. For one thing, the Trionfo’s components are ones you’d actually want to eat. And for another, it speaks of the risks young owner Sergio Melissano and his equally young chefs have taken in moving from their native Torino, Italy; taking over the spot vacated by White Horses; and offering willing San Clemente Pier tourists something different, even if it is a little gimmicky.

But the Trionfo turns out to be simpler than its ambitious title suggests. I don’t want to build it up too much because anticipation is everything. The dish really doesn’t go beyond the sum of its parts: A seafood-flecked, tomato-sauced linguine is baked in a dish covered with what is essentially pizza dough, stretched thin and taut over the top like a snare drum.

That's a pasta pie!
John Gilhooley
That's a pasta pie!

With the arrival of the dish come dire warnings to be careful lest one’s fingers be burned by the oven-hot vessel. After tearing into the baked crust—which must be done with as much gusto as ravishing your lover—you’ll find that the seafood pasta tastes like . . . seafood pasta. Dutifully good, done al dente and haunted by a faint shimmer of its sweetly tart sauce—but still, pasta.

Some of the noodles do get crisp where they touch the bottom of the baking dish. And the torn-up pieces of pastry, especially the crunchy edges, become the in-plate sopping device that you push around like pita bread to soak up what fell off the noodles.

Yet despite the formidable appearance and starch double dose, it doesn’t leave you lead-weighted. That’s the other thing about the food here: It’s extraordinarily light. The servers will tell you that unless you request it, no butter or olive oil is offered with the homemade bread. It doesn’t need any. Studded with nuts or herbs, the bread possesses a dense crumb as moist as pound cake.

For the octopus carpaccio, OltreMare’s chefs use only the thinnest stream of olive oil to drizzle. For acid, a lemon crown garnish is provided, leaving its application up to you. The meat—pounded whisper-thin, served in folds like handkerchiefs—is so tender the blindfolded would easily mistake it for cold cuts shaved from a post-Thanksgiving turkey.

On top of slightly warmed cubes of boiled potatoes, capers and olives, more octopus continues the kitchen’s cephalopod love affair. This time, it’s cut into chilled, meaty logs and mated with shrimp and mussels in something dubbed insalate di mare—an appetizer full of restraint, done simply and meant to tickle the palate, not pummel it.

Even when they veer away from Italian flavors, the lightness in the chefs’ execution carries the day. A fleeting bitterness of green tea inhabits the breadcrumbs crusting the slightly overcooked baked scallops. Practically bursting blueberries flank the pork tenderloin chops.

The latter works solely on the merits of how well the pork is roasted—a slight hint of pink remains in the middle of each sliced medallion. As for the berries, well, they’re both the dish’s strength and its weakness. In the mouth, they are a perky, fruity complement to the herb-crusted pork; but on the plate, they clash with the protein, the juice staining the white meat with splotches of purple, making it look like the hog lost a barnyard brawl.

But I reserve my harshest critique for their woefully undercooked Champagne risotto, which only needed a little more patience to coax it to velvet. Instead, every grain bites down too firm and chewy, the tell-tale sign of a rush job.

This leads to my final complaint: They don’t list their hours anywhere. Not on their website. Not on their doors. Their outgoing answering-machine message mentions they are “open daily for lunch and dinner,” with dinner service starting at 5:30. Taking them at their word, I showed up on a Sunday afternoon hungry to try more items, but I found them closed.

At OltreMare’s dinner service on a previous night, I overheard the owner tell a couple of guests he was losing ground to Fisherman’s Restaurant, just across the street. Guess where I ended up having Sunday brunch?

OltreMare, 610 Ave. Victoria, San Clemente, (949) 429-1800; oltremareoc.com. Call for hours. Entrées, $12-$29. Full bar.

This review appeared in print as "Triumphs and Tribulations: Many dishes at OltreMare are winners, thanks to the chefs’ light touch, but others come up short."
 
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