Italian, the Hard Way

Photo by Jeanne RiceRunning an Italian restaurant in Newport Beach is like playing in the NBA's Pacific Division this season: you have to be really, really good to get noticed.

The Italian eateries in this bayfront burg—where the salty dogs and the silicone sisters play—are wide-ranging, and most are worthy of your dining buck. From the old-school Villa Nova to the still-trendy Tutto Mare and the family-style Spaghetti Bender, the breadth of Italian restaurants in Newport Beach is the best you'll find in Orange County.

Which makes you wonder: What the hell is Franco DeRosa thinking?

Talk about taking on the odds. Not only did DeRosa open an Italian restaurant in Newport Beach, but he also did so in an out-of-the-way, off-the-main-street location. That's two strikes. But he's got a fighting chance because his Zucchero rates among the best new Italian restaurants in Orange County.

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DeRosa has been working in some of the better Italian joints in the Newport Beach area since the mid-'80s, waiting for the right chance to show his stuff. When the Stuft Noodle went under, he moved in and opened Zucchero last June.

The first highlight of the Zucchero menu is the prices; most of the pasta dishes run around 10 bucks, and the entres range from $13 to $20. That's cheap in this ZIP code.

Zucchero is also rare in another respect: it doesn't stress regional cuisine. Here, it's more of a pan-Italiano concept, featuring a blend of heavier northern and zestier southern cooking. This leads to a menu that's sometimes confusing to choose from but universally tasty.

Little things make this place good—like the creamy eggplant spread that comes with toasted Italian bread. The polenta arrives with grilled calamari stuffed with ground black olives. The daily risottos are hearty and rich—the one with grilled sausage and mushrooms on the night I was there was a killer. The Weekly's Jim Washburn eats there a lot and calls the gnocchi "little pillows of heaven." And the bachelor in you will love the grilled Italian sausage with spinach, peppers and polenta.

Me? I feasted on a wonderful rigatoni dish rich with bits of chicken sausage and spinach in a light garlic-white-wine sauce. The al dente pasta was chewy and perfect. Although I've heard raves about the osso buco, I went for the double-cut grilled pork chop braised in a sage sauce and plopped on a potato cake. It was one of the better pork chops I've eaten in an Orange County restaurant, and given the tonnage of pork churned out by OC kitchens these days, that's a high recommendation.

Zucchero is a restaurant still trying to find its way. Nearly empty the night I went, it will need to rely on word-of-mouth and more repeat customers to build a base. And I wouldn't be surprised if the menu added a few new wrinkles by the next time I go.

So here's my plug: give Zucchero a try. And if you're a little iffy on blowing a bunch of dough on a new place, stop by before 6:30 p.m. from Sunday through Thursday and order the $15 prix fixe menu, which includes tiramis for dessert. As dining in Newport Beach goes, that's a real bargain.

Zucchero, located at 215 Riverside Ave., Newport Beach, is open Sun.-Thurs., 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-11 p.m. (949) 646-2333. Dinner for two, $40-$60, food only. Full bar. All major credit cards accepted.

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