Mona Lisa Cucina: Good Italian Food Cooked By... A French Guy?!

Sacre, bleu!
Sacre, bleu!
Photo by Das Ubergeek

I suppose it's a measure of what an insufferable food snob I am that I go around judging the authenticity of a place by whether they actually know what goes into classic dishes. It's important to do in an Italian restaurant, because you need to know whether you're in a Tony Soprano nightmare or a restaurant with dishes recognizable to actual living Italians. Not that one's superior, but sometimes you want red sauce, and sometimes you don't.

And so I had my stuck-up judgment face on when I stopped in to Mona Lisa Cucina in Huntington Beach. My brain shrank away from the menu when I read "spaghetti bolognese" on the menu, because no Italian would ever put anything except wide ribbons, classically tagliatelle. with rich bolognese. No; not Italian. There was a Greek salad on the menu, and a Caesar--oh, God, another Cal-Ital; pandering to the whomever; insert your snobby, sniffy conniption here.

I ordered anyway, and a strange thing happened as I sat there watching the kitchen through the clear glass quasi-Zion Curtain; I saw someone mounting sauces with butter. Italians don't often mount sauces with butter; French people do. The pressing of a piece of meat to judge doneness: again, classically French. Then, as I saw the chef finishing cooking pasta by simmering it in its sauce--the shibboleth of Italian restaurants--he turned I saw the name stitched on the placket of his chef's coat: François.

The mystery was solved, but I was still worried. Italian food in France is a crapshoot--the good places are just as good as in the Mother Boot herself, and the mediocre places are worse than the careless sauce-on-top Italian-American holes that infest this continent from stem to stern.

I needn't have worried. This French guy, whose full name is François Lieutaud, is originally from Limoges in the central French region of Limousin, and he can cook. He was hired by Dino Ferraro, who also owns Capone's Cucina down the street.

The first dish I ordered, that Greek salad, came with the single bestcitronette--that's a French-style dressing, like vinaigrette, but with lemon juice instead of vinegar--I have ever had. Sure, the cucumbers were strewn like circular art you had to cut around the edges of the plate, but that salad was fresh and a perfect (if enormous) starter.

Then I ordered a misspelled pizza quattro stagioni, misspelled on the menu. Pizza quattro stagioni is one of those things: it's almost unknown outside Italy, so if it's got the right toppings (prosciutto, artichoke hearts, mushrooms and olives, each in its own quadrant), it's probably going to be good. And it was, though the crust needed another thirty seconds in the oven to crisp the bottom just a bit more. The olives were properly salty and not some phoned-in nod from a Mezzetta bottle; the mushrooms were cut thick enough so you could discern the flavor, but thin enough that they cooked in the oven. And--wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles--the artichokes didn't taste of brine and tin can.

The pizza comes cut, though. We are not in Italy, and your average American would give you the stinkeye if you suggested they use a knife and fork to eat pizza, so they get a pass.

I had to be talked into the tiramisù, because tiramisù is like Caesar salad: everybody makes it and almost nobody makes it well. Here, too, I was surprised: the cream was soft, but structured, almost like a really well-made mousse. Not too sweet, either, which is the bane of a dessert that needs to balance the sweetness of the cookies with the savoriness of the cheese and the bitterness of the espresso. (Bear in mind that not all desserts are made in-house: ask your server.)

Rereading this, it looks like my expectations were set low. I paid my bill, walked out and texted Gustavo about the meal, which is unusual. French chef or no French chef, this is a good restaurant.

So now, Italian chefs of Orange County, you have a problem: if a French guy can cook Italian food this well, it is time to pull your collectivepollici out of your collective culi and start cooking better food. You don't want to letquesti galletti francesishow you up, right?

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