Del Tomate Offers Pasta of the Pampas
There they were, Orange County's past and future, facing off in the present over pasta in Tustin. The setting wasn't your traditional trattoria à la Edwin's review to the left. Del Tomate's owners, Guillermo and Susana Giacobbe, are Argentinean, and the repertoire at their L-shaped restaurant consists of pasta and sandwiches with a twist of the pampas.
An older couple sat at one of the immaculate tables, retirees judging by the man's Tommy Bahama shirt and the woman's modest capris. Their arms were crossed as they waited. A River Plate soccer match screened on the television; the mellifluous sounds of Argentine Spanish echoed across the room. "We should've gone to Pina's," the woman grumbled, referring to the classic Italian restaurant across the street.
Time is of little concern at Del Tomate. The small gem is the most Argentine-intensive restaurant in the county, if not Southern California. Instead of drowning you in a sea of meat, the Giacobbes lure you with dishes impossible to find at their competitors'. It's a bona fide deli, alternating between the dual Argentine obsessions of sandwiches in French loaves (the entraña, fat with grilled skirt steak, redeems the steak sandwich from oblivion) and white bread, a place where you nearly forget that empanadas—flaky, gorgeous fat things—are also available, so dazzled you are by dishes that not even the family of your former Argentine gal or guy ever made for you.
The true beauty, however, is that everything is handmade. The bread is crusty like chicharrón on the outside, soft on the inside; the accompanying chimichurri has a potent garlic kick. Multilayered pastas are smothered in your choice of seven just-prepared sauces—including zippy pesto, creamy Alfredo, comforting pomodoro, tangy puttanesca. Milanesa is breaded with the care of a surgeon. A display case features pastries, from crumbly alfajores to dulce de leche-stuffed éclairs. With its mastery of pasta, subs, meat-grilling and desserts, this is as well-rounded a mom-and-pop in Orange County as you'll ever find.
Eventually, the retirees' meals came: tagliatelle with dual meatballs that seemed as imposing as Old Saddleback. The young woman apologized profusely for the delay, then let the couple eat. They dug in; the woman's frown disappeared. "It's better than Pina's," she whispered, as her husband munched in silence.
He stopped. "These people?" he said aloud to no one in particular. "They're good—real good. Great pasta."
No one paid attention—everyone had one eye on River Plate, the other on the streams of pastas before them.
This column appeared in print as "Pasta of the Pampas."
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