Photo by Jack GouldI don't remember a lot of my friends' and relatives' birthdays, but I can tell you when Newport Beach's Issay restaurant burned down. It was Aug. 8, 2000.
I like my friends and relatives better than I like restaurants, but they haven't burned down and Issay did, and that was a dark day for those of us who regard Chef Paolo Pestarino's cooking as palpable proof that the universe is guided by love. It's tough living on faith, so it's a gift when life affords you these little proofs, which often look just like gnocchi.
I wouldn't be surprised if Issay's estimable owner, Michiko Soffer, eventually rebuilds and reopens the fabulous place, but Paolo meanwhile has realized what he says is every chef's dream and has opened his own spot, Paolo's Ristarante.
In a review of Issay, I once opined that Paolo's cooking was too good to waste on the rich. That's not to say that Newport's toney set isn't deserving of nutrition, but food this robust and enlightening is certainly deserved and needed by the toiling folk as well. Now Paolo has relocated to the off-the-beaten-path locale of Huntington Beach's quaintly Teutonic Old World Village, where people from all walks of life will have an equally difficult time finding him.
But do! Call them for directions! It's freeway close, right by the 405 freeway and Beach Boulevard! He is flat-out the best seafood and sauce chef I've come across, and you will leave just as full and satisfied after having the $9.95 capellini tutti gusti or penne arrabiata (literally, "enraged pasta") as you will after the $21.95 cioppino, which, crowded sea in a bowl that it is, is still a bargain. You can even make a meal of the hearty, soul-satisfying pasta fagioli soup, made with all good things such as celery, carrots, onions, potatoes and two different kinds of beans, including large white beans imported from Italy.
Paolo's picky about things like that, growing a lot of his own herbs and hand selecting the fish and vegetables he serves, an unglamorous job for a chef but one he deems crucial to the quality of the dishes that arrive on your table.
He comes from a family of chefs, and that's how it was done in the northern Italian town near Turin where he grew up. He honed his skills in 16 years of cooking on Princess Cruise liners, and then he inhabited such OC eateries as What's Cooking, La Pergola, Carmello's and D'Angelo before his decade at Issay.
"But I've wanted my own place all my life," he says. "That's the dream of a chef. If you care about the place you're working at, you put nearly as much work into it anyway, so you might as well own it."
In the month he's been open, I've already worked my way through a lot of the menu, and you probably can't go wrong with anything. Of the pastas, I'm particularly partial to his gnocchi, while the linguine pescatora is like a more landlocked cousin to his cioppino, brimming with mussels, shrimp, clams, salmon and calamari.
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The chicken dishes are good, especially the pollo carciofi e porcini, a chicken breast smothered in the richest, darkest porcini mushroom sauce on earth. But these are the dishes you want to save for future visits, as a break from the incalculably good seafood items.
The sea bass balsamico—a frequent special—is a perfectly prepared piece of fish, sautéed and then baked to a moist serenity amid a sauce of balsamic vinegar, shallots, garlic, Italian herbs, a touch of Dijon and clam juice. Salmon is given a similar treatment as a menu item, and it's wonderful, but go for the sea bass if you have the option. With the salmon, instead try the salmon champagne, cooked in a touch of champagne with scallions, garlic, parsley, mushrooms and sundry other flavors.
Go with friends you enjoy talking with, so you can pace your eating over a couple of hours and make room for the tiramisù, which, again, is the best I've encountered, made with mascarpone cheese imported from a particular village in Italy because Paolo says it makes a difference, and I would never argue with an Italian with an apron on.
PAOLO'S RISTORANTE, LOCATED AT 7561 CENTER AVE., Ste. 37 (IN OLD WORLD VILLAGE), HUNTINGTON BEACH, IS OPEN FOR DINNER TUES.-SUN., 5:30-10 P.M. (714) 373-5399. WINE AND BEER. DINNER FOR TWO, $20-$50, FOOD ONLY. MC AND VISA ACCEPTED.