Learn Italian Fast

Photo by Jeanne RiceThe Tustin Market Place teems with so many undistinguished places to eat that you're better off bringing a sack lunch if you're going to spend the better part of a day schlepping from Ikea to Home Depot, unless your idea of good grub is a charred-beyond-recognition sirloin strip among swinging singles at the Black Angus or an oily slab of pepperoni among sugar-high soccer youth at Northwood Pizza.

There is an element of redemption: the Swedish meatballs at Ikea's Lingonberry Caf and Sapori Trattoria. In the middle of the greatest big-box retail pavilion our county—our country—has yet erected to Soviet-style shopping sits an honest-to-goodness Italian trattoria.

The Sapori name is probably most often associated with its original Newport Beach location, across the street from the Balboa Island bridge. There, the local wealth noshes on lunchtime pasta and sips Chianti at night while discussing muni funds, breast implants and those infernal planes taking off from nearby John Wayne.

The Tustin Sapori serves a different clientele. During the day, the window-walled, well-lit main room bustles with the constant action of sated shoppers lugging around bags the size of steamer trunks. But at night, the place is something like a destination spot or an entrept for people looking for a quick but high-quality bite before catching a flick at the adjacent Edwards theater.

So service is fast, and the menu reflects this need for speed. As a trattoria should, Sapori focuses on an extensive number of pasta dishes, personal pizzas and simple dinner entres prepared with a few basic ingredients that serve as dominant flavors.

First and foremost, Sapori is a pasta place, and it serves a pretty mean bowl of noodles. Real authentic Italians own and operate this place (and speak with the exclamation points we expect from them), so they know their sauces. They excel at the four basics—marinara, Bolognese, pesto and arrabiata—and each is offered with a choice of seven pastas. Among these four basic sauces, I always go for their rich, spicy arrabiata touched with garlic, black olives and a smidgen of cream. But the meaty Bolognese with carrots and celery ain't bad either.

The specialty pastas range from the merely sinful (a penne matriciana with tomatoes and Italian bacon tossed into a tart onion sauce) to the more elaborate seafood variety (the mussel-calamari-and-shrimp frutti de mari with slithery linguine). Even their house fettuccine with a cream-wine-and-tomato sauce is alluring.

But I'm a culinary rebel, and even when I eat Italian, I don't bother with pasta. I've moved on to Sapori's tagliata di bue aromatic, a New York strip topped with a mouth-puckering balsamic-vinegar sauce laced with garlic and diced tomatoes. This wasn't Morton's-quality beef, but the sauce more than compensated.

An even bigger anti-pasta rebel, my dinner companion dove into the daily risotto special of chicken with a vegetable mix of celery, carrots, zucchini, tomato and mushrooms in a light base. The rice was perfectly firm.

The entre selection doesn't end there. Along with a special roasted sea bass (too rich for my blood), there are the standard chicken parmiggiana and piccata and a veal scaloppini prepared in whatever way the chef feels like making it that day.

All in all, Sapori Trattoria significantly improves any visit to the Tustin Market Place. Just be wary of the table you choose. The cheerfully loud man who greeted us at the front table howled, "I have just the perfect table for you!!!" Perfect turned out to be a small two-seater (note: not all chairs are the same here; the eclecticism is kinda cute but makes me wonder if they haunt local yard sales) right by a table filled with paraphernalia from some wine importer and topped with a big bowl of hard candy.

"Now don't eat all the candy before dinner!!!" he erupted. Not that I was going to—and certainly not after a group of old ladies walked by as I was trying to eat a cup of minestrone soup (rich and spicy, just the way I like it). It was like a running gantlet, each senior knocking me in the shoulder while reaching for that wretched candy. Then I discovered that if you place all your dirty dishes in front of the candy bowl, no one comes around anymore.

Sapori Trattoria, located at 2991 El Camino Real, Tustin, is open Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. (714) 731-7480. Beer and wine. Dinner for two, $35-$55, food only. All major credit cards accepted.


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