More than a decade ago, I had dinner at Renata's Caffe Italiano in Old Towne Orange while a student at Chapman University. I don't remember the circumstances, the occasion, or who I was with—all that stays with me is the memory of a great meal, of a pasta perfectly sauced, calamari properly crispy, fine wine and a touch of romance. There had to have been a girl involved if I remembered the candlelight dinner and affordable prices—and I must've gotten lucky if I still have fond memories.
And then I ignored Renata's. It wasn't intentional—it was just that I had a new job as a food critic for this infernal rag, and the restaurant's old-school Italian didn't seem too thrilling in a county where Vietnamese, Middle Eastern and even regional Mexican cuisine was, for me, a revelation. Every time I passed by the place, I wondered if it remained as good as I remembered it—couldn't be, I figured. Must've been a college-age delusion. Yet I always asked friends if they had visited, if they enjoyed the place. All confirmed, with the most honest—our own Dave Lieberman—putting it thusly: "Their specials from Rome are awesome; stay away from everything else."
Business took me back to the ol' alma mater a couple of weeks ago, and the opportunity to eat at Renata's on someone else's dime presented itself. It was as charmingly dowdy as I remember it—faded murals, beat-up menus, faux fountains on the covered patio and a hellish soundtrack of Celine Dion covers. The waitstaff was attentive when it wasn't forgetful, the wine list still short but workable. And Dave was right: The regular food was largely so-so, but the specials were grand.
Renata's is a café at war with itself, knowing it must hew to the sub/spaghetti/fettucine/lasagna cartel in order to ensure the rent; those dishes, while fine, are better made and cheaper elsewhere. So stick to the dishes unfamiliar to our American knowledge of Italian food. While polenta is somewhat known, it's definitely not usually conceived of as Renata's polenta romana, perfectly formed blocks of the stuff standing over a shallow pool of a creamy sauce spiked with what tasted like Chianti—spectacular. There's also a pasta dish, the name of which I can't remember and that's not familiar to the Italian-American restaurant canon, with chunks of pancetta crisped as though chicharrones—amazing. I'm now going to Renata's regularly, making up for all that lost time. If only it would dump the tried-and-true entrées for those magnificent specials, then it'd become a county institution instead of Old Towne's secret. In the meanwhile, that just means more specials for me and you. Hint: Go with anything that has "roma" in its name. . . .
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This column appeared in print as "Roman Holiday."