Flavors of Flavio

Flavio Renteria will have someone else wash these dishes. Photo by Jonathan Ho.

For close to 20 years, Flavio Renteria was the dishwasher at Angie's, which later became Vineyard Terrace Trattoria, a neighborhood Italian joint in Tustin. In the intervening years, the Mexico City immigrant learned all he could about the cuisine, even going to Italy to immerse himself in all things culinary—a surprising turn for a young lad who came to America with an interest in extreme sports and no intention of following in his father's footsteps as a restaurateur.

Now, at 43, he owns the place. He re-christened the cozy pizza parlor—dolled up with white trellises and fake ivy—with his name in April, and you'll still see Renteria serving food and refilling drinks. If your server is a square-jawed, clean-shaven gentleman with a faint streak of silver in his hair, that's the man himself. If not, he'll be instantly identifiable when the regulars greet him with a familiar "Hey, Flavio! How you doin'?!"

Some customers visit to load up on carbs during the all-you-can-eat-pasta nights on Wednesdays; others come to croon into a microphone for red-wine-fueled evenings of off-key karaoke on Mondays and Sundays. Other days, his normal menu keeps them loyal. Flavio doesn't mess with the classics—homestyle meals long on spaghetti, pizza and garlic bread, food that's been woefully subjugated in the past decade by Buca di Beppo. Taste them again at Flavio's, and you'll remember how independently owned local eateries like his used to be the only places that did them justice.

Expect familiar comfort-food staples such as homemade meatballs: Dense, hand-formed, beefy orbs are draped in melted mozzarella and left swimming in a pool of tart, almost fruity marinara. A couple of shakes of red-pepper flakes sends them to places humble ground beef has never been.

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Flavio's stuffed-mushrooms antipasti—fat fungi made even plumper with seasoned breadcrumbs and sausage bits—are also baked with a blanket of cheese. A gravy boat with more red sauce accompanies it for dipping or dousing, depending on your mood. That tomato ambrosia also appears with the fried calamari, an appetizer lacking in salt, but not crunch. Each noisy bite of the crispy-battered squid will rattle your fillings loose.

One of the best starters are the mussels, the onyx shells shining like black castanets against the plate's white backdrop. They seem to clap in rhythm with the bracingly zesty kick of the garlicky, lemony white-wine sauce poured over them.

Main courses are loaded with enough pasta to make an Atkins dieter cower. But not even Mario Batali can make a dent in the linguini carbonara, an abundant tangle of noodles freckled with peas, mushrooms, fatty bacon and ham. The decadent cheesiness of its almost-too-rich cream sauce congeals as it cools, but the leftovers fed me for three days afterward.

More sensible pastas invade the seafood and chicken plates. The chicken marsala comes with angel hair served so scalding that it singed my upper palate. The chicken is lovingly prepared, with the flattened breast gently breaded, fried golden, and sauced with a balanced reduction of cream, mushrooms and marsala wine.

Opt for Flavio's lasagna over his pizza, though. The latter is set on a limp, thick-crusted dough short on character. But the lasagna is perfect, sculpted from silken pasta sheets, ricotta, sausage and red sauce. This tall stack is a structure worthy of Michelangelo—carefully nuanced, with no single ingredient outpacing the other. It's so good you'll see whole tables ordering nothing else.

According to our waitress, the kitchen outsources its desserts, but that's no reason not to try them. The Chocolate Wipeout is a chocolate cake layered with chocolate mousse and crusted with bittersweet-chocolate chips. Cocoa dust and chocolate syrup are sprinkled atop the confection to send it . . . well, over the top.

If you want to avoid a chocolate headache, get the tiramisú, though it also gets a dusting of cocoa and drizzles of that syrup. The sublime concoction might not be one of Flavio's own, but give the guy a break; he can't do everything. I hope, by this point, he's hired someone else to wash the dishes.

Flavio's Italian Kitchen, 14425 Newport Ave., Tustin, (714) 832-3434; www.flaviositaliankitchen.com. Open Sun.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sat., 4:30-9 p.m. Dinner for two, $30, excluding drinks. Beer and wine.

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